April 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.
 
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)
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.)
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)
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)
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) 

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)
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) 
Farthest South & Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford: Following his acclaimed debut collection, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, Rutherford’s sophomore collection  blurs the boundaries between dreams, fables, and the mystical to explore themes like family, grief,  and illness.  About the eight stories, Laura van den Berg writes: “Drawing on landscapes both mythic—the fairytale, the ghost story—and domestic, this collection illuminates terrors that feel at once prescient and eternal.”  (Carolyn)
Nancy by Bruno Lloret (translated by Ellen Jones): Lloret’s English language debut follows a recently-widowed, cancer-striken woman on her deathbed as she looks back on her sad, lonely, and bleak life in Chile. Fernando A. Flores calls Nancy “a devastating, psychic exploration of our crumbling world, told in a visceral style that proves Bruno Lloret to be a force among the emerging Chilean writers of today.” (Carolyn)

We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane: In her lyrical memoir, which won the 2020 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize, Cassandra Lane explores her ancestral history in order to give her future child a family history. Weaving the story of her great-grandparent’s lives in the rural South (including her great-grandfather’s tragic death) and her life in current-day Los Angeles, Lane explores the ways the past informs the present—and how to beautifully reclaim it. Previous Meriwether winner YZ Chin writes: “In We Are Bridges, Cassandra Lane boldly investigates the connections between transgenerational trauma, personal love, and the burden of memory.” (Carolyn)
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur: In Hur’s newest novel, particle physicist Elsa Park is working at an observatory in the Antarctic—a place, she believes, is far enough away from her family, past, and the ghosts that inhabit both. When the imaginary friend from her youth returns—and her catatonic mother breaks her years-long silence—Elsa must return home to face what she has spent years running from. Celeste Ng calls the novel “spellbinding shape-shifter” that “tackles questions of race, culture, and history head-on, exploring the blurry boundaries between past and present, fact and fantasy, and personal and cultural—or cosmic.” (Carolyn)
A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco (translated by Jennifer Croft): Falco’s newest collection (and his English language debut) feaures five stories—one of which was a finalist for the García Márquez Short Story Prize. Set in Argentina’s Córdoba mountains, these richly drawn stories explore faith, loss, and love, as well as the psychological and environmental. Kirkus’ glowing starred review called it “expansive and ingeniously crafted—an unforgettable collection.” (Carolyn)

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin: From the author of Don’t Skip Out on Me (a 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalist), Vlautin’s newest novel follows Lynette, a 30-year-old who is barely hanging on, as she tries to keep her family together by buying the house she lives in with her mother and developmentally disabled brother. Set over the course of two increasingly stressful days and nights, a desperate Lynette is pushed to the brink in order to keep a roof over her family’s head. Ivy Pochoda calls the novel a “masterclass of scope and scale” that bleeds real, cuts deep, and offers just the right dose of hope.” (Carolyn)

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick: The protagonist of Ozick’s first book in over a decade is Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired and isolated lawyer, who seems to be living in (and for) the past. When the boarding school he attended as a boy is turned into a pseduo retirement home for trustees, he tries to wrangle his memories into a memoir. About Ozick’s writing, The New York Review of Books writes: “No matter what the topic, Ozick’s prose urges the breathless reader along, her love of language rolling excitedly through her sentences like an ocean wave.” (Carolyn)

Permafrost by Eva Baltasar: Told in first-person stream of consciousness, Catalan poet Baltasar’s debut novel—which won the 2018 Catalan Booksellers Award—is about a forty-year-old lesbian who is turning over the memories of her life: wondering about former lovers; remembering places she lived; her thoughts of suicide. Amina Cain writes, “How can a novel that orbits suicide be so surprising, so intensely liberating and funny, and at the same time, so full of grief? That is its genius.”
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner: The tender and moving debut memoir from Zauner—writer and musician of the indie solo act Japanese Breakfast—shares the name of her viral 2018 New Yorker article. In what Dani Shapiro calls “a gripping, sensuous portrait of an indelible mother-daughter bond,” Zauner explores the visceral importance of food, memories of her late mother, and her identity as a Korean American. (Carolyn)

Back to School: The Nine Best Campus Novels (and One Memoir)

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Before I’d written a page of my novel All Girls, I’d drawn—on the yellow lined paper of a legal pad—a map of my book’s fictional boarding school: the round loop of its campus drive; the placement of the various dorms across a wide green; the woods that bordered the back edge of my rural enclave. This exercise had a practical purpose: I needed to understand the layout of my school to describe how my characters moved around it. But the activity was also itself a character sketch: in a campus novel, place is as significant a role as any protagonist (or villain). These books offer us a portrait of a community, not just in cast but in geography, and tell us the story of the relationship between a place and its people—how they shape one another, imprint on each other, leave the other forever changed.

1. The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames
Ames’s debut novel opens with a description of a dorm room window seat: From the outset, we understand that the liberal arts college where our story begins will shape our characters’ perspectives. The Other’s Gold is an empathetic, thoughtful reflection on whether we choose our friends or whether our circumstances choose them for us, and how those bonds do—or do not—weather the tests of growth and change.

2. We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

Funny and madcap like its 1980s setting, Barry’s novel tells the story of a high school field hockey team whose athletes pledge themselves to “witchcraft”—a series of increasingly elaborate (and dangerous) pranks enacted upon their school and surrounding community in the name of securing victory on the field. We Ride Upon Sticks is a portrait of a team, in all its interconnectedness—and in a world where not enough books feature girls who play sports, this is a gift.

3. My Education by Susan Choi

Is it possible that Choi is the patron saint of campus novels? Before Trust Exercise, there was My Education—a book about a grad student who falls in love with her predatory professor’s wife. The novel resists defining its characters’ sexuality, instead giving us a meditation on desire, and in this way almost seems like a precursor to books like Raven Leilani’s Luster or even the 2020 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

4. Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford
Not a novel, but Lacy Crawford’s memoir is such a powerful portrait—and indictment—of the power and privilege of institution that it belongs on any list about boarding school books. Assaulted by a fellow student at St. Paul’s School when she was 15 years old, Crawford’s book is a reclamation—of her voice and her story—but it is also a wholly empathetic rendering of teenage girlhood. The depth and compassion Crawford grants to her younger self is what all girls deserve—but perhaps in particular from the places that swear to serve as their protectors.

5. The Divines by Ellie Eaton

Eaton’s debut begins as our protagonist, Sephine, is on her honeymoon—and proceeds to unfold in two timelines, as Sephine navigates marriage and motherhood while also revisiting the traumatic events of her junior year at a crumbling English boarding school. The Divines is a book about legacy and self-perception—about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—and one that wonders whether we don’t sometimes choose the ghosts that haunt us.

6. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
At the start of Johnson’s debut novel, a boy dies by suicide. The rest of the book unfolds several years after the tragedy; this is not a novel about grief or guilt as much as it is about ripple effects, and the psychology of teenagerhood generally. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth takes the linked structure of Olive Kitteridge or A Visit from the Goon Squad and applies it to the most insular, interwoven community of all: high school.

7. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
A boy and a girl from very different backgrounds with their own personal traumas meet, fall in and out of love, and are—ultimately—a little bit doomed. It’s easy to forget that Kwon’s debut begins in this familiar way—on the dance floor at a college party—but for all its wrestling with big themes like faith and grief and violence, The Incendiaries is also a very intimate story: about the things we do and do not tell the people we love, and about what it is to be very young and searching for safe harbor.

8. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Credit where credit’s due: Prep is the O.G. Sittenfeld’s debut novel is the defining boarding school novel, unparalleled in its texture and verisimilitude, and Lee Fiora is one of the most distinct voices in contemporary fiction. With sharp insights on race and class, meticulous attention to the rhythms and mores of prep school life, and a nesting doll structure that underscores the labyrinthine nature of high school itself, Prep is one for the canon.

9. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
At Catherine House, students have everything they could ever need or want—including membership to an elite club of famously successful alumni. Tuition is free…ish: For the duration of their enrollment, students must promise to give up access to the outside world. Catherine House is equal parts campus novel, horror story, and coming-of-age tale—and a book whose very smart central question seems to ask: is there really a difference between a school and a cult?

10. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
Another debut novel set in an all-girls boarding school, Madam introduces us to a newly-appointed Classics teacher at Caldonbrae, where—not unlike in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—something is amiss. Although the book is set in the 1990s, Wynne plays expertly with her gothic literature toolkit, so our sense of place and time are distorted from the outset—a metaphor, perhaps, in the timelessness of the girls’ struggle, the school’s overemphasis on its own history.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Ten Thrillers Based on Real-Life Events

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Writers of fiction based on real-life events lay themselves open to charges: sensationalism, exploitation, cheap thrills. Let’s be honest: sometimes the thrills on offer are cheap. But they don’t have to be. The form of the thriller—fast-paced but with moments of intense reflection—lends itself to exploring big questions, often from new and unexpected angles. Edgar Allan Poe, Truman Capote, and Patricia Cornwell have all used mystery stories to reinterpret real events. Was Jack the Ripper actually English painter Walter Sickert, as Cornwell claims in Portrait of a Killer? I don’t think so, but Cornwell is such a high-octane storyteller that I enjoyed being pulled along for the ride. And sometimes a writer wants to go further, to frame an alternative outcome, or to dramatize aspects of a case that are not inherently dramatic (we know from FBI transcripts that most of what goes on in a serial killer’s head is unendingly mundane). Sometimes only fiction will do.
Murder disturbs us, and murder trials do not bring closure. They raise questions that nonfiction accounts often can’t answer, such as How could this happen here, and to these people? And because motive can be the hardest thing to determine, Why? Perhaps fiction can’t provide definitive answers, but it can certainly map out the terrain. In the U.S., Ed Gein, a killer who made keepsakes from bones and skin, casts his long shadow over Robert Bloch’s Psycho and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. And almost 30 years after it happened in my home country of Britain, we still struggle with the Jamie Bulger case, in which two 10-year-old boys murdered a toddler in cold blood. Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls and Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing take their inspiration from this horrible little murder. They are works of entertainment, yes, but honorable, thought-provoking, and deeply compelling. Here are 10 exceptional thrillers based on real-life events.
1. The Long Drop by Denise Mina
Sixty years after Peter Manuel’s death, people in Scotland still shudder at his name. Mina takes an event known to have happened—Manuel’s 11-hour drinking session with William Watt, the man whose wife, sister-in-law, and daughter he had bestially killed—and intercuts that night with Manuel’s trial for their murder the following year. For both men the stakes are high. The police suspect Watt of murdering his own family; Watt believes Manuel to be the killer. This is true crime reimagined as fiction and marketed as a novel. It’s a superb trawl through the razor gangs and illegal bars of the 1950s Glasgow underworld—horrifying, but at times very funny. Traces of that world are still there, as anyone who grew up in Scotland will tell you.

2. The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani
It’s easy to see why this is an international bestseller. What the opening pages describe is so repellent that you’re left wanting to put down the book, but Slimani writes with such persuasive brilliance and such compassion that she hooks you in. She based the novel on a notorious double child-murder in New York in 2012, but she moves the characters to Paris, and subtly flips the ethnic balance between family and nanny. Look at these people, this book seems to say. They could be you and your family. Slimani plays all kinds of tricks with the conventions of the crime thriller—we are never in any doubt about who did it, or why—and yet it is a breathless, compelling, and terrifying read that takes hold of your deepest fears and draws them subtly to the surface.

3. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Speaking of openings: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” If there is a better first sentence in a thriller, I don’t know what it is. Those 16 words terrified me as a child—they still do—even as they forced me read on. It’s the combination of a correct, matter-of-fact style, and the horrible promise they make to the reader. Part of you thinks they can’t be true, that no narrator could treat his characters with such cruelty. It’s chilling but exhilarating. This is a novel set in the prewar world of Brighton, a place of decency and gentility, you would think, but it’s policed by violent gangs armed with cutthroat razors. The novel’s most violent and compelling character, Pinkie, has a psychotic brilliance that others can only dream of.

4. Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth
Anyone living in Norway knows Vigdis Hjorth, an acclaimed writer of literary fiction. This book reads like a thriller, a devastating study of violence within a family, both physical and psychological, and the after-effects of that violence. Hjorth based the novel on experiences within her own family. In Norway the book caused such a stir that Hjorth’s sister felt compelled to publish her own counter-novel “to set the record straight.” But don’t read Will and Testament as a roman à clef: read it as a thriller, a family novel in weaponized form. Watch as it weaves seemingly banal events and conversations into a tight and breathless narrative of coercion and control, but also, ultimately, of escape.

5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Columbine High School murders cast long shadows across this novel, though you barely notice that at first. It’s the story of Kevin, a boy whose mother cannot fully love him. Is Kevin a bad child? A bad son? A bad brother? Or is something about the family driving him to want to destroy it? Shriver is such a skillful observer of human behavior, and of the intricate patterns of family life, that you are constantly uncertain. But it’s not just Columbine that Shriver is writing about, and it’s not just violence. Her narrator picks apart the family, the one with the values just like yours or mine, and she is terrified by what she finds.

6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
This book made me feel actively dirty, complicit in deeds that disgusted me, and yet I’ve read it three times. Why? Because Hannibal Lecter is a superb creation. Harris based the character on Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a prison doctor he met while conducting interviews in a Mexican jail. Dr. Treviño was in fact an inmate, a death row prisoner awaiting execution, a quietly charismatic man, and highly intelligent. Harris’s Lecter is the serial killer as brilliant mind, with a capacity far beyond anything we can imagine in ourselves. Who cares how unlikely that actually is? Lecter is so damn charismatic that a small part of me, a bad part for sure, wants to cheer him on. Thank God, then, for Clarice Starling, the moral center of the novel. Interesting, too, that Treviño’s actual crimes—a string of hitchhiker murders—are committed in Harris’s novel by the character of Buffalo Bill.

7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
So many mystery writers have taken the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as inspiration, but Agatha Christie must surely have been the first. Just two years after the 20-month-old boy was taken from his parents, aviators Charles and Anne Lindbergh, Christie published Murder on the Orient Express, with a plot that revolves around a similar abduction. It’s an intricate and beautifully crafted thriller, a locked-room mystery on wheels. But it’s so much more. It took me some time to realize that this is actually a horrifying little tale, because the release of information is so slow, and so clinically controlled. The murder at the story’s heart is so profoundly disturbing, readers at the time must have found themselves asking: “Too soon?”

8. Room by Emma Donoghue
It took me time to adjust to the voice in this novel. You find yourself asking, “Would a five-year-old structure a story sequentially? Would he express himself in italics?” Then you begin to understand Jack’s situation, and Donoghue’s story takes over. Jack and Ma are being held captive by Old Nick, a violent man who repeatedly rapes Ma. Jack cannot understand how desperate his situation is, because Ma shields him from the truths that she must face. What’s frightening to Jack, and what becomes terrifying to the reader, is the world beyond, which Jack only experiences through the television. The novel was inspired by the story of Elizabeth Fritzl, held as a sex slave by her father for 24 years and forced to bear his children, but the focus is really on what happens when a world collapses, as Jack’s world does on the day when he escapes.

9. The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline has said that The Girls is not about the Manson family, and that’s true in the same way that We Need to Talk About Kevin is not technically about Columbine. It’s a brilliantly clever denial; this thriller balances on a knife-edge, using what we know about the Manson family—a Californian death cult who murdered seven people over two nights, including the actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child—to make us fear for Evie, the book’s central character. Evie is 14, bored, and easily charmed. One day in summer she meets a captivating character. Will her innocence be the undoing of her? It connects very deeply to questions of radicalization that left me wondering what pushes or draws people into groups where violent acts are normalized.

10. Girl A by Abigail Dean
Can a book about a child’s kidnapping really be “profoundly entertaining?” Yes, according to Jenny Colgan, who describes Girl A as “a lovely, precision-tooled piece of kit.” Abigail Dean is a lawyer, and the “Girl A” in her novel is Lex, who was held captive by her parents as a child. When she and her siblings inherit the childhood home, they are confronted again with their past. Dean drew from a number of infamous legal cases, including those of English child killers Rose and Fred West, and the California couple David and Louise Turpin, who in 2019 were convicted of sexually abusing 12 of their 13 children. A confession: Girl A came out in February and, at the time of this writing, my copy hasn’t yet reached me in Norway, so I’m still waiting to read it. The book is on its way to being a huge international bestseller. I’m sure Jenny Colgan is right, and that the sensationalist framing hides a thoughtful and deeply felt commitment to confront and conquer ugly deeds.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2021

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
2 months

2.
2.

White Ivy
4 months

3.


Fake Accounts
1 month

4.
5.

The Silence
5 months

5.
3.

Dune: Book 1
4 months

6.
8.

Detransition, Baby

2 months

7.
6.

What Are You Going Through
5 months

8.
9.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
2 months

9.


No One Is Talking About This
1 month

10.
7.

Cuyahoga
5 months

“We suddenly have two novels, released within a week of each other, that brazenly, with swagger and open ambition, take on the voice of the bird app [Twitter], and thus of our scrambled times,” wrote Michael Lindgren in his piece last week on new novels from Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler.  “Due to the caprices of the publishing schedule, [both are now] permanently frozen in a lit-world pas de deux for all eternity.”

Both are now members of our Top Ten as well.

The third spot on this month’s list belongs to Oyler’s Fake Accounts, while Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This holds ninth position. (In Lindgren’s review, he’d have swapped the order.)

Their entrée onto our list was made possible by the ascension of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half to our site’s Hall of Fame, as well as another book dropping out from last month’s list. Meanwhile, the eight other books from January’s rankings alternated position, but mostly remained where they were. (Dune dropped a few slots, perhaps because at 704 pages, it simply weighs too much.)

Looking ahead, we expect significant changes to our list in May and June, as fully half of the books listed this month have been listed for four or five months apiece. That means five spots are on track to open up right as we enter what could be the most anticipated summer in North American history. You might think a populace emerging from a year of plague-based precautions would favor friskier activities than reading—but then again a generational cicada swarm may make the outdoors less appealing. In that case we’ll all be indoors again—reading, reading, reading, vaccinated and free.

This month’s near misses included: Outlawed, Vesper Flights, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself and Life Among the Terranauts. See Also: Last month’s list.

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About James and Nora Joyce

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Dubliner James Joyce gained international fame with the publication of his novel Ulysses in 1922. Joyce enjoyed a lifelong partnership with Nora Barnacle—an earthy, pragmatic Galway woman with little interest in literature.
The pair met in Dublin, where Nora worked in Finn’s Hotel, and first went out together on the June 16, 1904, later immortalized as Bloomsday, the day the events in Ulysses take place. Joyce and Nora left Ireland for Europe in October 1904 and settled in Trieste, then an Austro-Hungarian port town. They had two children—Giorgio and Lucia—and lived in various cities, including Paris. Both died in Zürich, Switzerland.
1. Joyce and Nora were not married when they eloped in 1904 and didn’t marry until 1931. Though bohemian in some attitudes, the Joyces lived a fairly conventional life. They pretended to be married but, after 27 years, made their union legal to ensure their children’s inheritances. The pair hoped to marry quietly in a London register office, but were found out by the paparazzi. Their annoyance is palpable in the photographs—Joyce looks grim and Nora tries to hide her face with her cloche hat.
2.Nora and Joyce moved relentlessly throughout their lives: sometimes evicted, sometimes living in borrowed accommodation, sometimes having to flee to keep safe. They stayed in Zürich during WWI and returned there at the start of WWII. In Paris alone, they lived at 19 different addresses. This peripatetic existence may have been a hangover from Joyce’s youth—his large family often moved clandestinely at night when his profligate father left their rent unpaid.
3. James Joyce was an English teacher. He taught at the Berlitz schools in Trieste and the Italian province of Pola, but found the work tiresome, and often spoke to his students about the faults of Ireland and the joys of drinking, rather than verbs and vocabulary. He gave up teaching when several benefactresses—Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Sylvia Beach, and Harriet Weaver—eased his financial strains.
4. In the great Irish emigrant tradition, Joyce and Nora “brought over” three of Joyce’s siblings to Trieste. His favorite brother, Stannie, worked alongside Joyce in the Berlitz School. Joyce’s motives were not benign—poverty-struck, the household needed another earner. Stannie was often bitter about propping up his genius brother and family. “He used me as a butcher uses his steel,” Stannie wrote. Still, he named his only son James and, in another twist, Stannie died on Bloomsday 1955.
5. James Joyce opened Ireland’s first dedicated cinema. The Volta Electric Theatre opened on Dublin’s Mary Street in September 1909. Joyce set up the cinema with backing from business people he befriended in Trieste, but Dubliners didn’t much like the program of Italian and French films, and the venture failed.
6. Nora and Joyce exchanged steamy, erotic letters when Joyce was in Ireland setting up his cinema and Nora was home in Trieste. Joyce’s letters, which can be read online, are frank, explicit, and obscene, but they also spill over into intimate, tender, poetic trances. Naturally we should not be privy to these wild imaginings, but it’s hard not to read them when they are there.
7. James Joyce was from a musical family and once contemplated a career as a singer. He had a sweet tenor voice and loved music. Nora was enchanted when she heard Joyce sing in Dublin’s Antient Concert Rooms, early in their courtship. The previous year, Joyce won a bronze medal at a national singing contest, only failing to win gold as he couldn’t sight-read. He gifted his medal to his Aunt Josephine; it was later bought at auction by dancer Michael Flatley.
8. The Joyce children were creatively talented. Lucia was a dancer and performed in Paris, and Giorgio, like his father, had a fine singing voice. Sadly, Lucia’s mental illness prevented her developing a career in dance, and Giorgio was, apparently, too nervous to take to the stage very often.
9. The Irish government refused to repatriate James’s body when died in Switzerland in 1941. He was buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zürich, beside the zoo. Nora, who died 10 years later in April 1951, was not initially buried in the same grave as her beloved Jim, but in 1966, her remains were exhumed and reburied with Joyce.
10. Nora and James’s last direct descendant died in January 2020. Stephen Joyce was the great defender of his family’s reputation and his grandfather’s writing. He said of Nora, “Nonna was so strong, she was a rock. I would venture to say that [Joyce] could have done none of it, not written one of the books, without her.”
Bonus Links:—James Joyce and the Yuletide EpiphanyHow to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers


This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Peach State by Adrienne Su

An exquisitely textured book. Food is a language, and Su follows its turns and tastes. She announces in “Ginger”: “We’ll affirm its arrival / when it’s not in the titles / of recipes in which it figures / quietly, as moderate slivers.” She rails against recipes that include the admonition to “serve immediately”: “Already the days // overflow with imperatives.” She laments that in “Home Baker,” “Art becomes chore, / your hair, clothes, the floor flecked with powder.” Be wary: “Having baked before marriage for the one you chose, / you pay to the end. Courtship is delusionary, // bread corporeal.” There is an unfortunate paradox: “Now, despite furnishings, a loaf / has the heft of a gift, the hours a miniature life / not spent on a book or a song.” Poems like “Peaches” cover much ground. “I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,” she writes, “stored it in the coolest part of the house, / then devoured it before any could rot.” Other Georgians ask her “But where are you from originally,” and she wants to quip “The homeland of the peach.” She writes about being “Chinese in that part of America, both strangers / and natives on a lonely, beautiful street,” and considers her parents: “Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids // who grew up to confuse work with pleasure, / to become typical immigrants’ children, / taller than their parents and unaware of hunger / except when asked the odd, perplexing question.” Peach State is so deliciously crafted through food that it makes me wonder why poetry is written about anything else. 

If This is The Age We End Discovery by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Most of these poems include the narrator wrestling with something: an ode to her brother, happy little clouds, derelict spacecraft, and Rick & Morty (but mostly Rick). “All my timelines lead to this poem,” she writes an especially apt poem about pondering life in a possible simulation. “I suspect / my own veins are rogue simulations/ flitting with a new kind of heightened self- / awareness. Proof: the nurse says they are flighty / & hard to find.” The f sounds of those lines capture the fluttering sense of ourselves: are we really here? Do we always awaken to the same world? “It’s also sad to think / the envy still filling us over some horse / we knew for less than a week / is simulated,” she says. Ben-Oni’s poems often spray across the page, her lines reaching for the edges as if they seek to uncover the outlines of our tenuous existence. In one wonderfully heartfelt poem, “All Palaces Are Temporary Palaces,” she writes of how her six-year-old niece calls her to ask questions. The girl talks of asteroid mining, comets, quarks. “My dear, dear girl,” the narrator responds, “Calling on this overcast day in the spring, where sky is one, long cover / Of impassivity. Why are we here? She’s asking for the first time, / And I hear the anxiety of one who’s stumbled upon a burning / Temple in the fields.” Ben-Oni courts wonder throughout this book, while acknowledging that opening ourselves to the search can be perilous. 

American Wake by Kerrin McCadden

Impressive range in this collection, both within and across poems. In “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” she asks: “what isn’t closer than you thought?” Bills, of course, but also “texts from an ex-husband that you have cleverly given / his own ringtone—the science fiction one, / so that every time he wants something / he breaks into your village home like a flying saucer / landing on earth, so close, all of a sudden / the peace and quiet you have built shattered.” Funny lines, but we sense the tension here, the hesitancy. “A Hagiography” is more comfortably hilarious: “Heads will roll, we say when shit gets bad, / but they don’t anymore—no more Saint Alban, // his head rolling downhill into a well, the water / turning holy.” More good questions: “Where was Saint Denis going when he walked / downhill into Paris, holding his head in his hands? // Where does anyone go with their head in their own hands? And what sermon does he give, this man gone walking // and praying, having played chicken without backing down / from men with swords, scourged and racked?” McCadden’s ability to shift without jarring owes to her care with sound and setting, as in “Our House Behind the Hawthorns”: “Our house // is just stone walls—a box filled with rusted bed- / frames and ploughs.” “Work and haul, kettle and hook, / stick broom, dirt floor, turf-light. At night, tiptoe / the edges of thirteen people sleeping.” When I read the lines “The sheep say their words / with their heads low, as if they know a story // is a sacrament” I feel an inclination toward the spirit that also permeates “The Dead.” The narrator watches her mother at her grandmother’s grave, “surveying lots, / approving and disapproving care and neglect.” She knows: “They worry I won’t keep the graves when they’re gone.” Elsewhere McCadden ponders her Irish lineage, in solemn pieces like “Saying the Rosary, Station Island.” An aged priest leads parishioners in praying the rosary. “I didn’t come for this,” the narrator admits, “but it takes me, and soon / I am walking outside, around and around the chapel, the priest // droning another decade, all of us walking in a circle.” They move “past the lake, past the holy water font, past the restrooms // where the Dyson hand-dryer joins the droning, a little engine / of extra prayer.” 

In the Antarctic Circle by Dennis James Sweeney

Appropriately enough, I settled into this book during a storm that dropped three feet of snow. The mood was externally set, but Sweeney’s book will get you there in any weather. In these prose poems, an unnamed narrator and a companion, Hank, exist in some ethereal plane in Antarctica. “The bed yawns under us,” Sweeney writes, on the introductory page. “He and I grip fingers. Thighs on thighs like batons.” We might consider this a prose-poetic play, discovered in scorched fragments. Each poem has coordinates as its title, leaving us somehow both exact and dizzied. Where are we? Hints of Samuel Beckett and William Gass (snow, wind, eternity, terror) haunt this book. “You will learn,” the narrator warns: “In a whiteout you cannot see shadows, but that does not mean the edges are not there.” Sweeney startles with the precision of his figurative description: “Harpoons loll in our arms like children too old to be held. Along the horizon animals run, disappearing over the brink of snow.” The narrator and Hank might be in love; they might simply be among each other, as we tend to gravitate toward what is warm when we are freezing: “Our rites of love and boredom circle each other, waving their leather whips.” Their purpose in this land is less clear than the explorers that Sweeney critiques. They are often powerless in this book: “Though no savior is due, we make a life of waiting.” The narrator ultimately sighs: “The world has less to offer than you think.” 

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

“Echo” is a perfect choice as the first poem for this book: “Gaudí believed in holy sound / and built a cathedral to contain it, / pulling hearing men from their knees / as though Deafness is a kind of Atheism.” The narrator continues: “Even though I have not heard / the golden decibel of angels, / I have been living in a noiseless / place where the doorbell is pulsating / light and I am unable to answer.” In a later poem, he explains that this is “the reason I sat in saintly silence / during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached / The Good News I only heard / as Babylon’s babbling echoes.” “Dear Hearing World” is a dynamic poem, an ars poetica and more. “I am equal parts sick of your / oh, I’m hard of hearing too, just because / you’ve been on an airplane or suffered head colds. / Your voice has always been the loudest sound in a room.” The narrator’s mother remembers Robert Plant, the “cheeky bugger,” who tried to haggle down her prices. “I didn’t care about Led nothing. / I’m just out in snow on a Saturday market morning / trying to make rent and this is it.” He recalls his father in “Dementia”: “When his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue, / wet with babbling,” the narrator went close to him, “unravelling a joy.” The narrator then “swallowed his past / until your breath was / warm as Caribbean / concrete.” He understands dementia will take its course, but prays that it will “make me unafraid / of what is / disappearing.” Antrobus can be gentle, tactile, and pointed in this book—which collects into an affirmation, a pronouncement. 

No Chronology by Karen Fish

In “Alibi,” Fish perfectly captures youth: “I knew nothing about anything: school, dreams, tornados, / strangers, smoke-filled bars, silent, oblivious mothers, / the teenage girls across the street, swaying and sashaying through the late afternoons with transistor radios.” She remembers how those years were full “of abrupt boys / running, stopwatches, athletic accidents, stitches, // snuck cigarettes, stashed girlie magazines, pogo sticks, / headlocks, handlebars to fall from.” Elsewhere in her book, there is the sense that the world will pass us: “The river forgets the fish, and the winter sun slides beyond / the far hills.” There’s a similar awareness in “The Accounting”: “Of course, there is some accounting, / right as you leave this world—stepping down // the rocky embankment, a purgatory.” Fish is absolutely exacting in her description, as during “Evening Song”: “The daylilies wince sut, reduced to orange tongues / waving by the woodshed, woozy on the wind.” and in another poem: “Living in the country, the great spaces / between the houses. The river just a black line / that underscored the sky.” And another: “Like most beauty— / the deer arrive unnoticed and then, / simply, are indisputable.” These precise lines (emotionally, syntactically so) are a stay against the mortality she reminds us of elsewhere. That’s comfort enough, I think, for now. 

March 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.
 

 

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 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)
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) 
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)  
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.)
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)

Justine by Forsyth Harmon: Set in 1999 on Long Island, Harmon’s illustrated novel follows Ali, a lonely teenager, as she falls under the spell of the beautiful and alluring Justine, a cashier at the neighborhood Stop & Shop. As the girls become closer, swiftly and intensely, their relationship becomes increasingly fraught. With no shortage of praise—”Show-stopping” (Alexander Chee); “Urgent and exquisite” (Melissa Febos); ” Pulsingly alive” (Kristen Radtke); “Nervy, exacting illustrations and effortles prose” (Catherine Lacy)—the debut is a complicated and nuanced portrait of female adolescence. (Carolyn)

Already Toast by Kate Washington: In her debut memoir, Washington—an essayist and dining critic for The Sacramento Bee—writes about her struggle to care for her cancer-stricken husband. As she became progressively more burnt out while being the full-time caregiver of her grievously ill husband and two young children, Washington realized she was only one of millions who were silently suffering because of countless cultural, bureaucratic, and policy failures. Kirkus writes, “A startling, hard-hitting story of a family medical disaster made worse by cultural insensitivities to caregivers.”(Carolyn)

Antonio by Beatriz Bracher (translated by Adam Morris): Benjamin, a graphic designer living in Rio de Janeiro, is on the cusp of becoming a father (to a baby boy named Antonio) when he learns a devastating, life-altering family secret. The people most intimately involved, who can answer Benjamin’s questions, are dead, so he turns to the people closest to them—who offer the father-to-be their versions of the truth. With starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, the former called novel “elegant and nuanced,” and the latter called it “spellbinding and surprising” and Bracher “one of the most fascinating contemporary Brazilian writers.” (Carolyn)

Last Call by Elon Green: In the 1980s and 1990s, The Last Call Killer, a long-forgotten serial murderer, preyed on gay men in New York City. Green, a journalist, explores the heinous crimes, the victims’ lives, and the decades-long investigation in his first book. “Elon Green tenaciously yet gracefully investigates a time when so many lived in secret, and those secrets made them vulnerable to predation,” writes Robert Kolker. “A resonant, powerful book.” (Carolyn)

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina (translated by Lucy Rand): Already an international bestseller in 21 countries, Messina’s English-language debut follows Yui, a mother who lost her mother and daughter during the Great Tōhoku Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Reeling from the loss, Yui struggles to keep herself afloat while dealing with her grief. When she hears about an old phone booth that allows people to talk to their lost loved ones, Yui travels there to find closure and healing. (Carolyn)

A History of Scars by Laura Lee: In her debut memoir, Lee’s essays explore the pyschological and emotional scars left behind by things like sexuality, trauma, mental illness, and complicated parent-child relationships. Library Journal says, ” “Ultimately, what Laura Lee created is a display of raw humanity that is both powerful and vulnerable.” (Carolyn)

The Millions Top Ten: January 2021

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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
1 month

2.
1.

White Ivy
3 months

3.
6.

Dune: Book 1
3 months

4.
5.

The Vanishing Half
6 months

5.
4.

The Silence
4 months

6.
5.

What Are You Going Through

4 months

7.
7.

Cuyahoga
4 months

8.


Detransition, Baby
1 month

9.


The Copenhagen Trilogy
1 month

10.


The Office of Historical Corrections
1 month

We’re witnessing history, folks. With the ascension of Utopia Avenue, this month David Mitchell sends his fifth book to our site’s Hall of Fame. More than a decade ago, Cloud Atlas marked Mitchell’s first appearance, and since then he’s returned with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House. That kind of sustained success is unique on this site; Mitchell’s our version of Tom Brady.

Of course there are other Millions mainstays, one of which tops this month’s list. George Saunders (three previous Hall of Fame appearances) leads the first Top Ten of 2021 with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which our own Adam O’Fallon Price called a “delightful book of criticism and craft pair[ing] 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.”

Meanwhile two other newcomers joined our list.

After spending some time among past lists’ “near misses,” Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections moves into 10th position this month. The novella and stories was mentioned six(!) times in our Year in Reading series, getting shout outs in the write-ups by Sejal Shah, Jean Chen Ho, Megan Giddings, Chris Gonzalez, Nadia Owusu and Margot Livesey.

Then, Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby debuted in 8th position thanks at least in part to Emily St. John Mandel’s blurb in our Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview, in which she characterized it as being about “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.”

Next month at least one new spot should open up, but more shakeups are always possible. See you soon.

This month’s near misses included: Outlawed and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. See Also: Last month’s list.

Writers to Watch: Spring 2021

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This season’s hot debuts include a psychological thriller about a young woman who will stop at nothing to achieve her writerly ambition, a systems novel set in Las Vegas, an exploration of the racial divide after Obama’s election, a chronicle of a new mother’s metamorphosis into a dog, and much more. In these ten profiles, the authors share the stories behind their work and what they hope to accomplish with fiction.

1. Alexandra Andrews: Naked Ambition

In PW’s starred review of Who Is Maud Dixon? (Little, Brown, Mar.), a psychological thriller about a young woman who loses her publishing job in a desperate act of self-sabotage and ends up working for a reclusive, Elena Ferrante–esque writer, we said readers might be left asking, “Who is Alexandra Andrews?”

Andrews never worked in publishing, though she remembers the awkwardness and insecurity of going to literary parties in her 20s, which she channeled into her frustrated writer protagonist, Florence. “So many of us grow up being told, ‘You can do anything you want, the world is your oyster,’ ” she says. “Then you hit 25, 26, and paths start getting shut off, and you’re shunted in this one direction, and you’re like, how did I get here?’ What I like about Florence is she just refuses to take no for an answer. She’s offered a plan B and doesn’t want it. She’s going to be a famous writer and nothing’s going to stop her. I don’t think I actually ever had that grit, but I like that she just sticks to it.”

But, Andrews notes, the book wasn’t driven by a personal story. “I wanted to write a commercial book, which feels like a dirty word, but I wanted to write what I wanted to read, and, you know, I like reading.” She asked her husband, novelist and Harper’s editor Christopher Beha, for advice on agents and sent the book to Jennifer Joel.

“Jen wrote back a really detailed, thoughtful email, four days after I sent it to her on a Sunday at 11 p.m.,” Andrews says. “And Chris was like, ‘Oh, that’s never happened to me.’ ”

Editor Judith Clain was immediately gripped, as well. “I’ve been at Little, Brown for 20 years, and once every three or four years I find a book that I feel completely obsessed with,” she says. “While I was reading this, I could already start to feel like I knew the pitch, and I could see exactly what the audience is. It’s a very visceral feeling.”

2. Dario Diofebi: Leaving Las Vegas
With the European job market in shambles after the 2008 financial crisis, Dario Diofebi completed his MA in comp lit in Rome, his home town, in 2010. “None of my friends had jobs, and Italy was in a rough place,” he says. While he was in school, poker had risen in popularity, and afterward, he found a way to make money by playing online. In 2013, he moved to Las Vegas and went pro.
Describing what he observed at the poker tables, Diofebi says it was an opportunity to soak up stories from people he might not have otherwise encountered, such as gun lobbyists and “Silicon Valley libertarian types,” who struck him with their raw sense of individualism. “People will talk to you at the table, so you become a collector of stories almost passively.”
Diofebi’s Paradise, Nevada (Bloomsbury, Apr.) is a sprawling novel about the people who live and work in Las Vegas, set in 2014 and 2015. He chose those years after realizing a cultural shift had taken place.
“The 2016 election was kind of a wake-up call,” Diofebi says. “You know, when the random poker nerd I knew suddenly started getting interested in the pickup artist movement, and then it was the manosphere and men’s rights movement. And then I looked back and said, ‘Oh, okay, no, he was just a fascist. I get it now.’ ”
Editor Callie Garnett says the book was unlike anything she’d read in a long time. “It ends up being about class struggle and solidarity, but in an environment that you just don’t think of as having anything to do with solidarity.”
Diofebi wanted to revive the systems novel, and Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and Donna Tartt were all touchstones, but he also mentions having been struck by the opportunity to convey contemporary income inequality through Las Vegas as Dickens did with 19th-century London. “Las Vegas has a way of making things that are usually hidden very visible,” he says.
3. Jamie Figueroa: A Dream Realized

Jamie Figueroa’s Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer (Catapult, Apr.) follows half siblings Rufina and Rafa Rivera as they revisit their hometown of Ciudad de Tres Hermanas after their mother’s death. The author, who was raised in rural Ohio and is of Puerto Rican descent, calls the city a “fictional twin” of Santa Fe, where she’s lived for the past 16 years.

Figueroa left Ohio for New Mexico, initially drawn to study with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, and spent time backpacking and connecting with the landscape while integrating meditation with her writing practice. She eventually studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she found permission and encouragement to explore her identity through her work. “Coming to know how those who’ve also been othered and historically oppressed rise up empowered and awarded for their voices has been incredibly impactful,” she says.

Despite heavy themes of grief, suicide, rape, and the trauma of racism, the book employs a playful omniscient narration, a delicate sleight of hand that Figueroa considers “the voice of the roots, the rocks, of the soil of this place that has recorded all time, that will scold and comfort, at times simultaneously.” Its effect becomes apparent in an early scene with Rufina and Rafa panhandling the tourists who expect to be enchanted by the alpine setting’s indigenous people. On Rafa: “To look at him, you wouldn’t know all the countries he’s traveled to during the past nine years, the whole of his twenties.”

There’s a subtlety to the work, which achieves great power with a generous reader, whom Figueroa found in editor Jonathan Lee. “I think the book asks one to slow down to read it and to pay attention at the sentence level,” Figueroa says. “It can be a little bit challenging or exciting depending on the reader. It really took the right editor to appreciate that.”

4. Nancy Johnson: Blue Collar
Before Chicagoan Nancy Johnson turned to fiction, she was a writer for television news programs. “It was a great foundation in terms of storytelling and the discipline of meeting deadlines,” she says. “But I was always writing other people’s stories and what the news dictated, and I knew that I wanted to tell the stories that were born of my own imagination.”
After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Johnson became occupied with burning questions about the reasons behind the increasing division in the country, despite the widespread belief that it was the beginning of a postracial era. “I realized that was a fallacy, because I could see this bitter divide between Black and white America,” she says.
Johnson’s book, The Kindest Lie (Morrow, Feb.), is about Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman from Ganton, a factory town in Indiana, who gets pregnant in high school and gives the baby up for adoption so she can leave for Yale.
When Ruth returns to Ganton after Obama’s election, she’s surprised to encounter heightened racial tension. The title refers to Ruth’s decision to keep her past secret from her husband, but Johnson says she also thought about what it says about America. “What are the lies that we as Americans tell about who we are?” she asks.
Johnson chose Ganton for the setting to give readers a richer understanding of Black Americans’ various experiences. “The working-class Black community is often forgotten in the news,” she says. “It’s only white America that they’re talking about when they say ‘working-class.’ ”
No matter the class, her Black characters are united by fear of encounters with the police, one of which leads to the book’s devastating denouement. “Ruth is a successful engineer,” Johnson says. “She has a degree from Yale, but she’s still Black. And that still means something when you’re interacting with the police.”
Editor Liz Stein praises Johnson’s literary craft, which the author honed while working with Tayari Jones, and expects the book to reach a wide audience with the subject matter and strong plot. “The icing on the cake is her prose,” Stein says. “It’s just so terrific. When we publish in a couple months, I think it’s going to be the kind of literature that really rises above and brings people together.”
5. Dantiel W. Moniz: Scratching the Surface
Florida writer Dantiel W. Moniz is interested in getting the most out of the short story form. “You know, people are like, ‘Oh, it’s a snapshot of a life,’ which it is, but it can also give you a hint of what the world is around the characters,” she says. “I hope to accomplish a sense of fullness, where you can just go off the page and think about the lives of the characters and how they connect with your own.”
The title story of Moniz’s collection, Milk Blood Heat (Grove, Feb.), begins with the atmosphere and tone of a coming-of-age story about Ava, who’s Black, and Kiera, who’s white—two tomboyish eighth graders who become “blood sisters” after drinking a mix of milk and Kiera’s blood. The ending, which catches up with Ava years later on her wedding night, pulls the rug out from under the reader, showing how a moment of intimacy returns Ava to a traumatic childhood moment.
Agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff recounts meeting Moniz at the University of Wisconsin in 2017 and being impressed by her fully formed vision. “The collections that actually stand out are the ones where it’s possible to talk about individual stories in a cohesive way,” Simonoff says, “where there are these different voices all singing the same song.”
Katie Raissian, Moniz’s editor, got an early look at a few of the stories and says she pestered Simonoff for a year, hoping for a chance to publish the collection. “She’s such a Grove writer,” Raissian says. “And she’s an amazing storyteller.”
Moniz, asked about what she hopes to contribute to the literature of Florida, says she didn’t inherit the sense that Florida is a literary state. “Every story I ever read was somewhere else,” she adds. “Even if it was in Florida, it was like, South Florida, Miami, Disney World. But there are so many stories here. We haven’t even scratched the surface of all of the stories that could be. So if I can help anybody that’s from here or not from here be like, ‘Oh, let me consider this as like a real place,’ then that would be cool.”
6. Rebecca Sacks: Rashomon in Israel
Rebecca Sacks’s debut novel, City of a Thousand Gates (Harper, Feb.), about the sectarian violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, grew in part from her time spent in Tel Aviv several years ago, when she was doing graduate work in Jewish studies. But the whole thing clicked, she says, after she began to reflect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
“I became obsessed with how different I was from all the white women who voted for Trump,” Sacks says. “I asked myself, What might we share in terms of how we’ve benefited from the status quo?—which led me to a place that had very little to do with white women.”
At the center of the book is an Israeli Jewish community’s outrage over the fatal stabbing of a 14-year-old girl, and the retaliatory beating of a Palestinian teenager with no connection to the murder. Sacks felt the only way to tell the story was to capture it from multiple points of view. “I wanted to go to the scariest place I could imagine,” she says, “which was my own intimacy and familiarity with power.”
While in Israel, Sacks published a series of dispatches for the Paris Review, written in part to help her understand the cycle of violence and constant rocket flares, and as she did, she became attuned to various Hebrew inflections and what they said about a person’s origins and relation to the region’s boundaries. Her absorption of Israeli and Palestinian people’s negotiation of the boundaries is apparent from the book’s first chapter, which follows Bethlehem University student Hamid on an anxious trip home from a job inside Israel after he boards the wrong bus without a permit. “Anything was better than being beaten half to death in some suburban bus stop. Right? Wrong. Because now he is so spectacularly fucked,” Sacks writes.
At UC Irvine, Michelle Latiolais recommended that Sacks read Hemingway’s In Our Time. She was struck by the “emotional urgency” of the book’s short, interstitial episodes. “They let me access characters in deeply private ways as they’re out in the world facing danger and hostilities,” she says. “I hope that when people read the book, they can relate to anyone and feel them come through.”
7. Sanjena Sathian: Stay Gold
Sanjena Sathian should be in New Zealand for a teaching gig, but the pandemic put an end to that. After finishing her MFA at the University of Iowa last year, she planned to return to India, where she’d worked as a journalist in 2015, to improve her Hindi, but COVID put the kibosh on those plans, too. Now she’s in Atlanta, where she grew up, and where her debut novel, Gold Diggers (Penguin Press, Apr.), is set.
The book turns on a magical realist conceit about an Indian American family’s inherited ritual involving stolen gold, which Anita Dayal and her mother plan to use to help get Anita into Harvard.
“The whole thing started with an interest in gold theft, which was a thing that I had heard about happening in Atlanta,” Sathian says. She wrote the book over the two years spent at Iowa—“kind of like five years of outside-Iowa time”—and once she developed the speculative fiction element, it all fell into place.
Sathian also credits her years as a journalist and her time in India. “There are parts of writing about the Indian American experience and the immigrant experience that I never would have had access to if I hadn’t spent time there,” she says.
A major theme of the book is the model minority myth about Asian Americans, which Sathian highlights through the Dayals’ neighbor, Neil, and his reaction to the intensely competitive community he belongs to. Neil is an underachiever, and the plot thickens when Anita schemes to get him some of her mom’s magic gold potion to help him get into UC Berkeley.
“I definitely grew up in an intellectually and academically intense environment,” Sathian says. “But I was lucky to be able to also figure out that I loved reading and had an intellectual connection [to schoolwork]. I think Neil has some aspects of me, in that sometimes I definitely felt disconnected from why I cared so much.”
Sathian’s manuscript was rescued from agent Susan Golomb’s slush pile by an assistant, who made sure it got into Golomb’s hands. “Susan knew to go to with Ginny Smith Younce, who edits Celeste Ng,” Sathian says. “And I think Ginny brought something to it with Asian American stories and the suburbs. And she’s also from Georgia, which I think is kind of rare in New York publishing. So we connected over that.”
8. Christine Smallwood: Beneath the Ivory Tower
Christine Smallwood has already made a name for herself as a literary critic and journalist at Harper’s, the New Yorker, and elsewhere, and along the way she has been publishing short fiction as well. While studying at Swarthmore College, she wrote fiction but couldn’t get into the fiction seminars. “I decided I was going to be a different kind of writer,” she says.
But over the past decade, Smallwood went back to fiction. A story she published in n+1 about a woman who has a miscarriage, titled “The Keeper,” became the basis of A Life of the Mind (Hogarth, Mar.). “I just felt like there was more to do with that character,” she recalls. “And the miscarriage became a way of talking about other things, like the precarity and contingency of academia.”
The book follows a young literature scholar named Dorothy, stuck in “adjuncting hell.” She teaches as many as five classes per semester at a New York City university while reckoning with dwindling prospects for a tenure track job. Throughout, she deals with the aftermath of her miscarriage, an experience Smallwood describes in visceral detail that earned her writing a comparison to Otessa Moshfegh in a starred review from PW.
“It’s really bracing,” Smallwood says of Moshfegh’s work. “Like, she kind of dares you to turn away.”
Editor Alexis Washam says she related to Dorothy’s feelings of being stuck. “I just love how she captured the immediacy and texture of the moments that feel both kind of small when they’re being experienced, but in retrospect are shifting the course of our lives.”
One of Dorothy’s central challenges is dealing with the powerful figure of a former adviser from her grad school years who never treated her well, and whose favorites end up getting published and hired. The character emerged while Smallwood took a break from the novel to work on a TV pilot. “I realized I had kind of accidentally been working on the novel without meaning to be working on it,” she says. “I had totally given up on it, then realized I was still in its world.”
9. Rachel Yoder: A Mother Under the Influence
Before writing Nightbitch (Doubleday, July), a novel about a new mother who believes she’s turning into a dog, Rachel Yoder went through two MFA programs, most recently the University of Iowa’s, and published a series of stories and essays in various journals.
“I was really dedicated to the writing life,” Yoder says. “That was my whole identity.”
Then she had a kid, and for a couple years she stopped writing. But the harrowing descriptions of motherhood in Rachel Zucker’s Mother and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation planted seeds, and as the Trump years wore on, galvanizing women’s rage across the country, Yoder also felt deeply affected. “A lot of people were more confrontational about how things were and why couldn’t they be different,” she says. “This book is engaging with the energy we’ve had over the last four years. It feels like an artifact from the Trump era.”
After the protagonist spends a restless night yelling and growling at the baby and her husband, her husband says, “You were kind of a bitch last night.” She begins calling herself Nightbitch, and then notices a thick patch of hair on the back of her neck.
Films were also an influence. “I was thinking a lot when I was writing this about portrayals of women who were kind of free or unleashed in a way that felt really visceral,” Yoder says. She mentions Raw and A Woman Under the Influence, along with Serial Mom. “I liked that it wasn’t pure rage—that there was also this absurdist comedic element.”
Margo Shickmanter, who edited the satirical My Sister, the Serial Killer, responded immediately to Yoder’s absurd sense of humor. “It felt like the right way to make sense of what’s happening right now,” she says. “It’s like a release and an escape.”
A Nightbitch film is now in development by Annapurna, with Amy Adams set to star, and Yoder is working on the screenplay. “I’ve taken a really deep dive into researching art and feminist art, which is getting folded into the movie in a way that’s really fun and bonkers,” she says. “I’m hoping to finish it this week and get it out the door, knock on wood. Wish me luck.”
10. E. Lily Yu: A Great Escape
E. Lily Yu was raised on fairy tales. “There’s a kind of spare, primal intensity to the ways their structures work,” she says. “They don’t rely on literary technique or specific words or art. I think the very best are the ones that teach the kind of truths that are almost impossible to see on a daily level. The fairy tale promises us in some ways that there is meaning and worth to what we do, even if there is no immediate payoff.”
When Yu, who grew up in New Jersey, studied physics in Australia in 2010, she became aware of the issues surrounding the country’s refugee crisis. Her novel, On Fragile Waves (Erewhon, Feb.), developed slowly over the next decade. It follows two Afghan children on their perilous journey across borders with their parents on their way to Australia. Along the way, the children exchange folklore, which helps them cope with their uncertain future.
Yu’s investment into the project runs deep. In 2013, she spent 10 days in Afghanistan to research her characters’ homeland. She rented a room in Kabul from the Washington Post’s bureau chief and took as many precautions as possible for her safety. “If I take off my glasses and I dress appropriately,” she says, “I look like I belong.”
When Yu was done, she had a friend get the manuscript to editor Liz Gorinsky, formerly of Tor.
In 2018, Gorinsky founded Erewhon Books, dedicated to speculative fiction that bridges the gaps between literary fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. “We’re publishing few enough books that every one has to have good characters and good plot,” she says. “And this hit all of the marks in terms of just being palpably, beautifully written.”
Yu says she had interest from editors at other houses, but their publishers felt the book was too risky. “With Erewhon, Liz is doing something really beautiful and dangerous and wonderful,” she adds.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Must-Read Poetry: February 2021

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Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov

Dimitrov’s clever, casual, and inviting lines—“I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately. / I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself”—are especially welcome right now. But this is a complex collection; in “Waiting at Stonewall,” he ponders, 50 years later: “Those of us who resisted heroes / and sentiment. Those of us / who waited and found neither— / not the promised liberation / in marriage, or the salvation / of laws.” Sit down and appreciate “Love,” a long, anchoring litany-poem: “I love religious spaces though I’m sometimes lost there. / I love the sun for worshipping no one.” In “My Secret,” the narrator shares: “I’m suddenly / one of those people / who goes out / to dinner alone.” He knows: “Everyone I love / is disappointed in me.” This is a book about love, yes, but it is also one of the best recent books about New York City. If you love that city, if you hate that city, if you want to understand that city: read this book. His smirks and winks (“Or even worse / they’re going home to cook / and read this sad poem online”) are tender rather than tendentious; we are invited to experience this book. He calls out all of us, “Such righteous / saints! Repeating easy lines, / performing our great politics.” Dimitrov is good enough—his lines are smooth enough—that the guilty will gladly take the punishment. 

Promoteo by C. Dale Young

“As a child,” Young writes in a poem halfway through this book, “I asked my mother to listen to me / while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more / and more odd for their sounds, their structures.” Drawn to syntax and sound, the narrator remembers the repetition of Mass—how he was “trying to master // the language, the very words, fearful they would master / me, instead.” Years later, Young, the poet (and radiation oncologist) has mastered language in this finely wrought new volume. Continuing a tradition from previous books like The Second Person, Young’s narrators have inherited languages of religion and desire, and they intertwine in their ecstasy. “You punish or are punished,” he writes. “It really is that simple. // Dominus, Holy Father. I have hidden myself / in the cane field. I may have sinned.” “Portrait in Ochre and Seven Whispers” is a searing poem of suffering and abuse, beginning with: “To make and remake one’s self is / the artist’s job, I believed. And so, in poems, / I gave myself wings.” The narrator later laments: “You were supposed to save us. You were / supposed to help save our souls. Isn’t that part / of the vow you made to God when choosing / the life you did?” He ends the stanza: “You must have forgotten that. / You didn’t kill my soul. But you didn’t save it either.” An excellent book.

Self-Portrait with Cephalopod by Kathryn Smith

Playful and smart: Smith shows those traits can synthesize into memorable poems (with great titles). In “Most of Us Aren’t Beautiful, Though Some Learn How,” she admits: “I’m back // where I started: stuck in a parable / I cannot, botanically, and do not, // theologically, believe.” In the first poem, Smith writes: “The beauty of birds isn’t flight. It’s how they let / their young cram pointy beaks down their throats.” In “Dear Sirs,” she wonders—if the “traditional forms of revelation” included “interpretable dream, flashes of light,” then what “are some of the modern forms?” It’s a good question, and Smith is comfortable not answering it, resigned to a truth: “I fear that fire // will burn the insides of my eyes, / flames licking the wounds and disappearing / names of the dead.” Smith’s poems often ponder an entropic world through a theology of absence: “It is said in God / there is no darkness. / It is also said / I am made / in God’s image.” In this way, “I am fearfully and wonderfully / made, made wonderfully / fearful.” She concludes: “Surely goodness / will dog me all the days / of my life.” 

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank

God in the machine, God is the machine: Frank’s new book is a menagerie of automation, automatons, sentient verse, errant prophecies. She considers the tradition of mechanical Eves: “fetching your tea, serving / you wine,” they “didn’t have a mind” and “were built from the ribs / of men’s brains.” “Oh, man has made her!” Frank intones (long live exclamation points in poems!), “and she is uncanny (and / infertile!).” Man has long made women “in his own image / for beauty and service, oh, man has / made her, a more pliable Eve / with no desire of her own.” I think of how Thomas Pynchon lifted the Luddites from their 19th century economic vengeance to their contemporary technophobia; Frank similarly mines past art, story, and parable for astoundingly contemporary truths. She follows the metaphor of body-as-machine to its logical end: we are all gears, oiled, “no different than that of medieval / mechanical monkeys lining the bridge // in the park at Hesdin.” Eye-opening, jaunty: this is a whirl of a book.

The Readiness by Alan Gillis

What routes these lines take. Gillis begins one poem with an earthworm who “squinches / through soil to ooze in dew, / only to be pincered / in the beak of a crow, // lifted above the garden, the gable wall, into a sky / of porridge / with faint pools of blue.” I’m a believer in poetic surprise (when Frost created that image of ice on a hot stove, he knew that sometimes the ice melted into itself and steamed into the air: no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader, and so on). Gillis delivers, finding the lolling and lyric in the everyday: “get set for the whigmaleeries of the ticking clock, / spilt milk, the mystery / of missing socks, the transport peeve, the hundred-tonne / weight of to-dos.” Maybe poetry isn’t utilitarian in a grand, salvific sense, but it is a cure for language, and it might be a method to sing boredom into beauty. Gillis wants us to be ready: revelations, small and strange, “could happen at sunset / on a sloping lawn. / In a yawning estate / it could happen at dawn.” “Everything changes,” Gillis writes in a later poem. “In this there is no change.” Gillis’s willingness to bounce between jest and earnestness is a good reminder of how comic-poets can stun us with their well-placed truths: “And you know this, / the oncoming day, is nothing / but the night’s brief parenthesis.”