The Millions Top Ten: September 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 September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Great Mistake
4 months

2.


Beautiful World, Where Are You
1 month

3.


The Magician
1 month

4.


The Book of Form and Emptiness
1 month

5.


Bewilderment
1 month

6.
5.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

2 months

7.


Matrix
1 month

8.


Cloud Cuckoo Land
1 month

9.
4.

Subdivision
5 months

10.
10.

The House on Vesper Sands
3 months

Hall of Famers alone do not explain why newcomers make up 60 percent of this month’s list. Only two spots opened because Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy ascended to our site’s hallowed hall—Ishiguro’s second entry and Ditlevsen’s first.

Six newcomers may be a record for our site. Certainly it is since the start of 2020. We’ve averaged 2.45 new books each month over that span, only once welcoming four.

To reshape the list with six, then, means something else is happening. No doubt the popularity of these new books’ authors has something to do with it. Sally Rooney is in second position, Colm Tóibín holds third, Lauren Groff claims sixth, and this is not to make slouches out of Ruth Ozeki, Richard Powers, and Anthony Doerr, either.

Perhaps it’s seasonal. As the leaves drop through crisp air, do wallets open to purchase new books? Evidently so, and The Millions was on it. All six newcomers were on our Great Second-Half 2021 Book Preview.

Will next month’s list bring as much change to our list? Unlikely, but there’s only one way to find out.

This month’s near misses included: A Calling for Charlie Barnes, The Morning Star, Harlem Shuffle, Nightbitch, and Intimacies. See Also: Last month’s list.

The 10 Strangest Dystopias

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Dystopias are everywhere these days. They’re in popular TV shows, video games, children’s novels, and—let’s be honest—the daily news. (What else can you call it when every other news story is about pandemics, environmental collapse, or ever-widening wealth inequality?) Dystopian fiction has a rich and long history in science fiction, and for good reason. By showing us the extreme outcomes, dystopian literature helps us better see the dangers of the paths we are heading down. At least that’s the hope.
Yet when the daily news feels dystopian, perhaps the standard dystopias start to feel a little tame. Perhaps we become inured to threats the books are exploring. So for this list I thought I’d write about strange dystopias. Ones that not only warn us of future dangers, but also inhabit that bizarre dreamlike space that lets our minds see more clearly. Plus, shouldn’t science fiction always be a little weird? Here are 10 of my favorite strange dystopian novels.

1. The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

Yōko Ogawa is one of my favorite authors of dark and strange stories—get Revenge stat!—and her foray into science fiction doesn’t disappoint. In The Memory Police, Ogawa filters Orwell through Kafka to describe a dystopian island nation where the secret police cause not only people but also concepts to disappear. Citizens might wake up one day and find that “hats” or “books” have been erased. Not just from the physical world. From everyone’s memories and imaginations. It’s a nightmarish novel in the most literal sense: strange, dreamlike, and unforgettable.

2. A Planet for Rent by Yoss (translated by David Frye)

The Cuban author Yoss has been writing excellent, weird science fiction for a while now. If you haven’t hopped on the Yoss train yet, then there’s no better place to start than his first novel translated into English, A Planet for Rent. In this novel-in-stories, Earth has been colonized by powerful alien races and turned into a tourist trap. Humans are desperate to escape on homemade rocket ships, and the ones who stay scrape out a living incubating alien grubs in their bodies or else taking on bizarre entertainment jobs like having your limbs and organs exploded on stage. The book’s critique of colonialism, capitalism, and communist bureaucracy are clear, but even at its most dystopian, the novel never forgets to be fun.

3. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

When one thinks about Margaret Atwood and dystopias, The Handmaid’s Tale is what comes to mind. And justifiably. But if we’re talking strange dystopias, then I have to plug her brilliant novel Oryx and Crake, which opens the MaddAddam trilogy. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where bizarre lab-created humanoids with blue butts move around the ruins of a plague-ravaged world. Much of the plot takes place in flashbacks to the time before the apocalypse, when corporations with whimsical names like Anooyoo and RejoovenEsense pacified the “plebs” with innovations like ultra-Viagra pills and transplantable organs grown inside hybrid pig creatures named “pigoons.” (In my novel, the government’s frog/eagle “freagles” are a little homage to Atwood.) The main character, Jimmy, must survive in the ruins of the world while his memories slowly reveal how he and his friends Crake and Oryx helped turn the dystopia into an apocalypse.

4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s disquieting masterpiece makes the list for seeming so normal at first. At the beginning, you are tempted to think it’s a classic English boarding school novel. We follow Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth at Hailsham as they navigate the awkward and fraught relationships of teens everywhere. However, you soon realize that things are… not quite right at Hailsham. The teachers are called “guardians” and the ones who hint at the truth of the students’ lives are quickly removed from the school. I probably shouldn’t say anything more or risk giving away the novel’s haunting twist. Ishiguro’s famously taut and minimalist prose deftly moves the story from normal to strange.

5. Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem’s reputation as a consummate genre-bender started with this debut novel. Gun follows a Raymond Chandler-esque private detective, Conrad Metcalf, trying to solve a murder in a futuristic San Francisco. Lethem throws a whole bunch of fun and strange concepts at the reader. There are “evolved,” talking animals everywhere (including in organized crime), technologically enhanced “baby-head” children who are smarter than adults, and karma debit cards. Oh, and handguns have violin soundtracks. It’s a wild ride with something surprising on every page.

6. Duplex by Kathryn Davis

Duplex is one of the most indescribable, bizarre, and unforgettable novels you’ll ever read. Is it dystopian? Science fiction? Fantasy? Domestic realism? It’s a bit of everything. The novel takes place in a kind of Twilight Zone American suburb where everything dark and unreal exists simultaneously. There is perverted sorcerer named Body-without-Soul, tiny robots that accidentally disintegrate schoolgirls, and inhuman Aquanauts. Nothing is what it seems in this surreal Americana tale. It’s one of those novels you will either love or hate, but if your tastes bend toward Surrealism then I highly recommend checking it out.

7. The Warren by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is a modern master of literary horror fiction and many of his works have dystopian and apocalyptic elements. This excellent novella is one of those, showcasing Evenson’s unique blend of existentialism and body horror in a post-apocalyptic setting. A being named only X thinks he is the sole survivor, yet he’s also unsure if he is even a person. His inquiries to the computer system only deepen the mystery. Scouring the poisonous landscape, he finds another being that is unlike him. His sense of reality destabilizes further as the reader is pulled deeper and deeper into the mysterious, shifting, and haunting world.

8. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

While most of the novels on this list are firmly science fiction, N.K. Jemisin’s stellar Broken Earth trilogy—The Fifth Season is the first novel in the series—is set in more of a fantasy world. In the continent of the Stillness, the earth itself is a danger. Plagued by earthquakes and deadly creatures like boil bugs, the people in the Stillness hate and fear and oppress the magical Orogenes, who have powers to control the land. And then the world literally begins to fall apart. The whole trilogy is a SFF masterpiece, which each entry winning the Hugo for Best Novel. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

9. Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe

Kōbō Abe is such a foundational author for me that I even named the main character in my novel, The Body Scout, after him. Abe is sometimes called the “Kafka of Japanese literature,” which seems especially apt in this truly strange novel. A man’s wife is taken to a hospital. But when he tries to find her, he instead finds himself trapped inside an enormous, labyrinthine hospital. Kafka meets Dali as the man has to navigate demented, philosophizing doctors, impossible diseases, and a half-horse chief of security. Part satire, part nightmare, it’s a dystopian acid trip of a novel that won’t make you want to go to any hospitals anytime soon.

10. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s best novel might be the more utopian The Dispossessed, but The Lathe of Heaven is my favorite of her dystopian visions. At the start of the novel, society is already in a bad place. The environment is collapsing from climate change and overpopulation. Wars rage around the world. Then, suddenly, reality changes. Then it changes again and again and again. The gist is that there is a man whose dreams can change reality and a mad scientist who seeks to exploit this to perfect the world. But it doesn’t always go right. For instance, when the scientist insists the man dream a solution to overpopulation, a plague decimates the world. When he makes the man dream of peace on earth, alien turtles invade, forcing humanity to unite against the threat. This novel, Le Guin’s tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, is a true mind-bender and a good reminder that when you try to impose utopia, dystopia is often the result.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

October Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen: Whether he’s insulting Oprah or posing self-importantly as “The Great American Novelist” on the cover of Time, Franzen has a singular talent for arousing public contempt. But the fact is he writes good books. Here, he returns to his literary roots in the story of a troubled family, the Hildebrandts, fractured by the cultural upheaval of the early 1970s. The novel is the first in a planned trilogy, with the Middlemarchian title “A Key to All Mythologies,” that will span three generations of the Hildebrandt clan. (Michael)
My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson: In her debut collection, Johnson explores a world (and country) ever on the brink and the people who choose to survive no matter the cost. In the titular novella, set in the near future, a Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is driven from her home by violent white supremacists. In another story, a single mother attempts to buy a home before the apocalypse happens. About the incandescent collection, Colson Whitehead writes: ““A badass debut by any measure—nimble, knowing, and electrifying.” (Carolyn)
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins: Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus, and the beloved story collection Battleborn, now brings us her second novel, which, clearly, has the most badass title of all time. In it, a writer suffering from postpartum depression leaves her husband and baby to do a speaking engagement in Reno, only to end up deep in the Mojave Desert where she grew up. Jenny Offill writes, “There’s some kind of genius sorcery in this novel. It’s startlingly original, hilarious and harrowing by turns, finally transcendent.” A piece by Vaye Watkins, with the same memorable title, is available to read on Granta. (Edan)
Reprieve by James Han Mattson: Four contestants competing for a cash prize enter the final cell of Quigley House, a full-contact haunted escape room—but only three exit. Mattson’s second novel follows the survivors as they come to terms with how they are partially responsible for the tragedy. Rumaan Alam says, “But the brilliance of James Han Mattson’s novel is in deploying the haunted house as a metaphor for our nation, where the true scare is a cultural reckoning with whiteness itself.” (Carolyn)
Trust by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri): Lovers Pietro and Teresa are trying to save their doomed relationship when they decide to do something impulsive: share the most shameful secret of their lives. When they break up, their lives diverge temporarily—until Teresa begins to reappear at the most inopportune times. Acclaimed Italian novelist and National Book Award finalist Starnone’s newest novel explores vulnerability, relationships, and the gulf between our public and private selves. (Carolyn)
Fight Nightby Miriam Toews: The award-winning author of Women Talking and All My Puny Sorrows is back with a novel as moving as it is full of humor. Swiv is a nine-year-old who lives in Toronto with her pregnant mother and lively grandmother. When Swiv is expelled from school, Grandma takes on the role of teacher. Swiv, in turn, assigns Grandma the job of writing her unborn brother, Gord. “You’re a small thing,” Grandma writes, “and you must learn to fight.” As Susan Cole, in Now Magazine, says, “Few authors mix humor and deep emotion with Toews’s skill.” (Claire)
The Pessimists by Bethany Ball: From Richard Ford to Edward Albee, Rick Moody to John Cheever, the American suburbs have always had a dark core underneath the façade of Levittown homes and perfectly manicured front lawns. Ball gives her own spin on the tribulations of suburban ennui in her aptly named new novel The Pessimists. Ball’s second novel is no mid-century rehash, however, because The Pessimists is very much a suburban gothic for our current American dystopia. The denizens of Connecticut’s Gold Coast include Virginia and Trip, the perfect couple, who secretly hoard a cache of basement weapons to survive the apocalypse, as well as the more conventionally despairing Richard and Margot whose trials only include infidelity and mental health crises. Both twistedly dark and wickedly funny, The Pessimists updates our narratives of suburban anguish for an age of American decline. (Ed)
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles: It’s June 1954, and 18-year-old Emmett Watson has just finished serving 15 months at the juvenile work farm for involuntary manslaughter. But when he returns home to Nebraska expecting to pick up his kid brother Billy and leave for California to start a new life, he gets a surprise. Two buddies from the work farm are waiting to take him the other way—to New York City, where beguiling characters and adventures await. Told from multiple points of view, the novel is reason to rejoice for Towles’s millions of fans, who made his first two novels, Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, runaway international bestsellers. (Bill)
Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology by Ed Simon: Are you endlessly mixing up Asmodeus and Azazel? The Millions’ own Simon can help: he’s mapped out Satan’s family tree. When it comes to Western art and culture, the Devil certainly has been in the details for about five millennia now, and one could argue that his forte—conflict—is at the heart of any story worth reading. So, brush up your demonology with this singular, illustrated treatment that “celebrates the art of hell like never before.” (Il’ja)
Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva: This is a novel in verse, fitting for an acclaimed poet who has published three books of poetry. Dreaming of You follows a young Latinx poet who brings the pop star Selena back to life and embarks upon her own journey of hell, including a dead celebrity prom, in an exploration of celebrity, obsession, and identity. Terrance Hayes says of the book: “Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s kinetic, pop-operatic Dreaming of You is like some terrific amalgam of fan fiction and fantasy nonfiction; a Selena monograph made of memoir, myth and magic. Her partly satirical, partly ecstatic linguistics constitute a whole other sort of literary hybrid.” (Lydia)
The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon: In this new novel from the author of Get Down and Disgruntled, two women who knew each other in college before embarking on very different paths come together in mid-life in a tender, comic, searching novel inspired by Mrs. Dallowayand Sula. Danielle Evans says of the novel, “Asali Solomon illuminates what it means to grow away from what felt like the truest version of yourself, what the way back might look like, what Black women in particular are asked to give up, and what it might mean to refuse. Solomon is a treasure: wise, hilarious, and full of poignant insight.” (Lydia)
Search History by Eugene Lim: The author of the critically acclaimed 2017 novel Dear Cyborgs and The Strangers returns with a kaleidoscopic novel of art, grief, artificial intelligence, identity, and a man who is reincarnated as a dog. John Keene raves, “Lim has found a way to capture both the pointed specificity of the internet and its Borgesian infiniteness, in order to tell a picaresque tale about race and American culture, artificial intelligence, artmaking, storytelling, and so much more.” (Lydia)
Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit: Just when you think are you sick of hearing about George Orwell, Solnit, the author of more than 20 books, reveals a surprising side. Orwell was a passionate gardener, and especially enjoyed flowers. “If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it,” the author writes, using this fresh insight to illuminate an absorbing mediation on Orwell’s work as a writer and antifascist. (Marie)
April in Spain by John Banville: The Booker Prize winner’s latest novel is a mystery set on the coast of the Basque Country in Spain. In San Sebastian, native Dubliner Quirke is struggling to relax and enjoy his time in the countryside, despite the pleasant locale and the amiable company of his wife. Then, one night, he spots a stranger in a bar who looks like April Latimer, the woman his brother murdered years before. He makes a call home to Ireland and summons Det. St. John Strafford, who flies down to Spain at the same time as a hit man, whose ultimate target may just be Quirke himself. (Thom)
On Girlhood, edited by Glory Edim: The inaugural book from Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl Library Series features 15 short stories from Black writers. The anthology—which is divided into the four themes of Innocence, Belonging, Love, and Self-Discovery—features short fiction from writers such as Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, and Rita Dove. Kirkus’ starred review calls it “a profound, prismatic collection” that “presents an expansive, decades-spanning view of Black girlhood.” (Carolyn)
The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh: In the successor to his acclaimed book, The Great Derangement, Ghosh explores the origins of the current climate crisis—which he argues is rooted in the centuries-old colonialism and capitalism of Western civilization— through the history of nutmeg. Sunil Amrith writes: “The Nutmeg’s Curse brings to life alternative visions of human flourishing in consonance with the rest of nature—and reminds us how great are the vested interested that obstruct them.” (Carolyn)
On Animals by Susan Orlean: In her newest book, New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Orlean has gathered essays all about animals and animal-human relationships. Whether writing about Biff, the champion boxer dog; Kevin Richardson, the lion whisperer; animal actors in Hollywood; or Keiko, the captive whale who forgot how to be free, Orlean manages to write with empathy, delight, and unending curioisty. Kirkus’ starred review says the book is “another winner featuring the author’s trademark blend of meticulous research and scintillating writing.” (Carolyn)
Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud: While living away from his conservative Egyptian family, Sheero, a wealthy undergraduate at NYU, is revealing in his freedom when a visit from the FBI—with news that his estranged cousin has perpetrated a terrible attack—upends his carefree life. Shifting back and forth in time, and spanning over several decades, Mahmoud’s debut novel follows a group of young Egyptians and Egyptian Americans as they struggle against familial, cultural, and class expectations. Raven Leilani says, “Cairo Circles is a deft meditation on how family and class can brighten and distort life’s trajectory and force us to grapple with how closely origin and desire are intertwined.” (Carolyn)

Cascade by Craig Davidson: A mother and son struggle to survive a car crash. A pro basketball player’s decision to punch a fan changes his life forever. Twins in a juvenile detention center discover the ugly truth about each other. In his six-story collection, Scotiabank Giller Prize nominee Davidson (Cataract City) returns to “Cataract City,” his fictionalized version of Niagara Falls, to explore unsettling familial relationships. Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls the collection “a blissful, wholly satisfying assemblage of cinematic stories, sure to please Davidson’s fans and attract newcomers.” (Carolyn)

The Swank Hotel by Lucy Corin: In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, Em is working her mindless marketing job while she awaits to hear from Ad, her perpetually-missing sister. The novel oscillates between multiple points of view including Em; her manager, Frank; Frank’s decades-long lover, Jack; Em’s parents; and Tasio, who works for Em’s family and loves Ad. About Corin’s newest, Karen Russell says, “Here is a writer light years ahead of her time returning to explore the recent past of our ongoing American crises.” (Carolyn)
Greedy by Jen Winston: In what Publishers Weekly calls a “sparkling” and “wholly original” debut collection, Winston explores bisexuality, gender, and sex with humor, generosity, and earnestness.Winston’s essays explores her confusing and uncertain queer coming-of-age; the harmfulness of biphobia and bi stereotypes (and how to overcome them); the idea of being “queer enough;” and why being “too much” is the least you can do for yourself. (Carolyn)
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by by Nathaniel Ian Miller: Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Miller’s novel follows 32-year-old Sven Ormson, who flees to a remote fjord with his dog after surviving a near fatal avalanche. After burrowing deep into his isolation and loneliness for decades, Sven’s life is forever altered by an unexpected visitor. Adam Johnson says the novel “illuminates the very nature of human yearning and perseverance,” and that Miller “ascends to the firmament of today’s most exciting young novelists.”(Carolyn)
I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart: In Pickhart’s debut, which is set during the the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, four people lives overlap, intersect, and irrevocably change in the face of personal, political, and historical turmoil. The ambitious novel has garnered rave starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly (“ardent,” “sprawling,” “bighearted,” “It’s a stunner”) and Kirkus (“Innovative, emotionally resonant, and deeply affecting”). (Carolyn)
What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy: In her newest novel, Chancy (The Loneliness of Angels) follows an interconnected group of survivors—including musicians, architects, drug traffickers, lovers, and merchants—as they struggle to live, love, and hope in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. A rave starred review from Publishers Weekly says the novel “multilayered,” “dazzling,” and “lyrical” novel is “not to be missed.” (Carolyn)
We Imagined It Was Rain by Andrew Siegrist: Set primarily in Tennessee, the stories in Siegrist’s debut story collection explores mundane and life-altering moments with beauty, tenderness, and reverence. About the 2020 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize winner, Z.Z. Packer writes: ““Reading We Imagined It Was Rain is like entering a dream journal—every sense is heightened and stretched, every memory expanded and reassembled in the hopes of deciphering the past or surviving the present….A keen eye for the truths of the human condition—as well as a mastery of tone, detail, and imagery—make this writer one to watch.” (Carolyn)

The Devil’s Treasure by Mary Gaitskill: In her latest book, Gaitskill’s critiques and reflects on her life’s work. Presenting a bricolage of fiction, memoir, criticism, and visual art, she puts her past and current work in chorus with each other, including  her memoir, previous novels (including Veronica and The Mare), a novel in progress, and Gaitskill’s commentary and artwork. (Carolyn)

Southern Gothic: Ten Essentials Books

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When it comes to Southern gothic, it’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity. It’s a genre designed to make you uncomfortable. The stories are sticky with dread and unease, and the ripe atmosphere threatens to swallow everything. Turn over a rock and you’ll find it teeming with family secrets: incest, murder, madness. Sometimes the supernatural intrudes—ghosts rise up, or the Devil himself sidles in—but the most horrific transgressions are almost always the human ones. Characters in these stories may try to ignore the past—especially America’s racist history—but it’s always encroaching, as relentless as the vines choking a decrepit plantation house.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe laid the foundations of Southern gothic, but the posts and beams were set by mid-century writers such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. Every generation of writers, though, returns to the genre and reshapes it. Here are 10 of my favorites books that do something remarkable with Southern gothic, presented in the order they were published.

1. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

In 1973, McCarthy blew up the Southern gothic in the same way he’d later blow up the western in his 1985 masterpiece, Blood Meridian. Child of God is the story of Lester Ballard, a destitute, violent man living in Sevier County, Tenn., not far from where my parents grew up. With every page, Ballard moves further out of human society until he descends into murder and necrophilia. It’s not for the faint of heart, but McCarthy’s prose carries you through. He jumps from the poetic to the brusque and brutal, speaking in the voices of many locals who knew Ballard, a man they’ve either persecuted or recoiled from. McCarthy makes you suspect that Ballard isn’t an anomaly in his community, but the inevitable product of it.

2. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Morrison’s haunting and haunted novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and there’s no better book about trauma and the way it cannot be escaped or erased. Sethe, a former slave, made it to the free state of Ohio and has raised her children there. But when a young woman named Beloved shows up on Sethe’s doorstep, long-buried secrets come rushing out. By centering this Southern story on a Black woman, Morrison makes us reckon with the greatest sin in American history.

3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

This 1997 book is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel, and depends on novelistic effects, such as shuffling the timing of events, to land its punches. The story is about Jim Williams, an antiques dealer in Savannah, Ga., who’s put on trial (multiple times) for the shooting of Danny Hansford, Williams’s employee and a male prostitute. The ostensible question of the book is whether it was murder or self-defense, but what I found so riveting was Berendt’s portrait of Savanah, with its white society ladies, Black debutantes, and drag queens (Lady Chablis is the most vibrant character in the book).

4. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

A literary confession: I saw Amy Adams in the television version of Sharp Objects before I went back and read Flynn’s 2006 novel. (Isn’t that what TV shows are supposed to do for books, after all?) But Flynn’s story is the star. The novel follows Camille Preaker, an emotionally and physically scarred journalist, who goes back to her home town of Wind Gap, Mo., to investigate a pair of murders. Flynn masterfully intertwines the hunt for the killer with the revelation of Camille’s tragic past. This is modern-day Southern gothic, and I ate it up with a spoon.

5. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

One of the hallmarks of Southern gothic is outlandish and outlandishly named characters, and Russell’s 2011 novel is chock-full of them:  Chief Bigtree, an alligator wrestler with no Native American heritage who runs the struggling Everglades theme park of the title; the ghost Louis Thanksgiving and the (living) teenage girl named Osceola who’s in love with him; and a villain named Bird Man who may have supernatural powers. But much of the novel is told to us by 13-year-old Ava, the youngest child of the Chief, and it’s her precocious, hopeful, and pragmatic voice that anchors the book, and makes it so affecting.

6. Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery

I’m going to geographically and temporally stretch the territory of the Southern gothic so I can talk about one of my favorite books. In Slattery’s apocalyptic novel, which won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award, the ironically named Sunny Jim travels up the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, through a fallen America ravaged by climate change, searching for his lost son. It’s the near future but feels like a doom-flooded version of a Mark Twain tale, replete with riverboat captains, preachers, and banjo players. Everyone knows the end is near; a slowly advancing storm wall they call “the Big One” has already swallowed most of the country, and it’s coming for the East Coast. Sunny Jim witnesses civilization breaking down in ugly ways, but there are moments of grace, and Slattery’s vivid prose never fails.

7. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Ruff’s 2016 novel blends pulp science fiction, Lovecraftian mythology, and Southern gothic sensibilities. The book opens with Atticus Turner, a Black Korean War veteran, trying to make his way through the Jim Crow South to get home to Chicago. The rest of the book, structured like an anthology, introduces us to Atticus’s parents, who publish a guide for Black travelers inspired by the Green Book, and the rest of his extended family. The Turners face off against the Braithwhites, a white family of sorcerers, but the real villain is Jim Crow. What terrors could scaly monsters hold compared to Southern cops and “sundown towns”?

8. A Lushing and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs

This 2019 book is a duology of novellas, and show Jacobs, author of the Southern Gods series, at the height of his powers. The first novella, The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, is South American Lovecraft, as if Roberto Bolaño or Gabriel García Márquez had taken a turn toward cosmic horror. My Heart Struck Sorrow is more purely Southern gothic. The story follows Cromwell, a white music archivist traveling the 1930s South gathering field recordings for the Library of Congress, who keeps finding increasingly ominous versions of the murder ballad “Stagger Lee.” Cromwell is in over his head, and Jacobs infuses every cryptic incident with dread, leading to a final encounter in the woods with something inhuman. If you want to know the future of Southern gothic, pick up anything this man writes.

9. Mexican Gothic by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia

Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, however, may have moved on from Southern gothic—her just-published new novel is Velvet Was the Night, which is 1970s Mexican noir—but if you haven’t read her bestseller from 2020, you should definitely remedy that. Mexican Gothic takes all the tropes of gothic fiction and places them in the Mexican countryside. There’s an old mansion, a depraved family, and a cornucopia of hidden secrets. What holds it together are the stylish heroine and Moreno-Garcia’s control of tone. She orchestrates a delicious slow build to a very creepy climax.

10. Moon Lake by Joe R. Lansdale

And now, something brand new from a master of Southern gothic. Lansdale has written upwards of 30 novels (I lost count on Wikipedia) and who knows how many novellas and short stories. I’ve loved his work ever since reading his short story “Night They Missed the Horror Show.” Moon Lake had me in the first two sentences: “My name is Daniel Russell. I dream of dark water.” In 1968, when Daniel was 13, his grief-stricken father tried to kill them both by driving off an East Texas bridge. The father died, but Daniel, who’s white, was taken in by a Black family. Years later, a local sheriff calls with new information and Daniel returns to the scene of the crime. Like any excellent Southern gothic, the secrets are juicy, the characters vivid, and the atmosphere is as thick as an East Texas night.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Millions Top Ten: August 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 August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Klara and the Sun
6 months

2.
3.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
6 months

3.
4.

The Great Mistake
3 months

4.
5.

Subdivision
4 months

5.


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
1 month

6.
6.

Outlawed

5 months

7.


The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
1 month

8.


Ghost Forest
1 month

9.
7.

Women and Other Monsters
4 months

10.
9.

The House on Vesper Sands
2 months

Our own Ed Simon wrote that “the idiosyncratic contours” of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s mind were on full display in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The work, “scribbl[ed] away as incendiary explosions echoed across the Polish countryside and mustard gas wafted over fields of corpses,” Simon continues, “is less the greatest philosophical work of the 20th century than it is one of the most immaculate volumes of modernist poetry written in the past hundred years.”

It’s also the newest addition to our site’s Top Ten, because if there’s one thing Millions readers evidently love, it’s “one of the oddest books in the history of logic.” This month, the fifth spot belongs to all of you.

Elsewhere on our list, we opened three spots because Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts graduated to our Hall of Fame while Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed both dropped out.

After Wittgenstein, those spots are presently occupied by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois and Pik-Shuen Fung’s Ghost Forest. The two novels, published in August and July, respectively, were featured in our Great Second-Half 2021 Book Preview, where Jianan Qian wrote previews for both.

Writing of Love Songs, Qian wrote:
In her ambitious fiction debut, the 2020 National Book Award-nominated poet meditates on African-American history from the colonial slave trade to our current, turbulent age.
…and of Ghost Forest:
This is a fascinating epic of a Chinese-Canadian family, heartbreaking, daring, and relieving.
Solid picks, both. Stay tuned next month to see at least two newcomers, and to find out whether Wittgenstein endures.

This month’s near misses included: Nightbitch, Something New Under the Sun, and Intimacies. See Also: Last month’s list.

Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes Name 2021 Winners

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Three print magazines and two digital publications were named winners of the fourth annual Whiting Literary Magazine Prizes, taking home a combined total of $144,000 in funding. The prizes, which are administered by the Whiting Foundation, have been awarded since 2018 to a total of 18 literary magazines to honor their “excellence in publishing, advocacy for writers, and a unique contribution to the strength of the overall literary community.”

This year’s winners, with citations, are as follows:

The Massachusetts Review (Amherst, Mass.), a “trove of finely written and imaginative stories from around the globe, exemplary in its commitment to formal experiment and traditional literary excellence, and to enriching the scope of our literature through its translations.”

Medium-Budget Print Prize Winner ($150,000-$500,000 budget)
Total prize: $60,000

Bellevue Literary Review (New York, N.Y.), “a unique venue for exploring writing about medicine and the body in illness and health, which was the first literary journal to arise from a medical setting and is now a fast-growing hub for dialogues between the medical community and the arts.”

Small-Budget Print Prize Winner (under $150,000 budget)
Total prize: $30,000

The Arkansas International (Fayetteville, Ark.), “a bright new star in the literary firmament distinguished by its exceptional fiction, beautiful design, commitment to translation, and the oasis it provides for literary culture in the American heartland.”

Print Development Grantee (under $50,000 budget)
Total prize: $15,000

Latin American Literature Today (Norman, Okla.), “an essential literary bridge across the Americas distinguished by its fully multilingual issues featuring the greatest contemporary Latin American writing in Spanish and indigenous languages.”

Digital Prize Winner (under $500,000 budget)
Total prize: $30,000

Full Stop (New York, N.Y.), “a dynamic and richly eclectic platform for book criticism, untethered to the zeitgeist but fearlessly contemporary, which brings hundreds of books that might otherwise go unnoticed into larger literary conversations.”

Digital Development Grantee (under $15,000 budget)
Total prize: $9,000

The prize money is distributed to each winner over the course of three years; the awards in the second and third years are made as matching grants, with the Whiting Foundation doubling or tripling new gifts.

“Receiving the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize during this pandemic year is an incredible honor for Bellevue Literary Review, since BLR’s focus is on health, illness and healing,” said Danielle Ofri, editor-in-chief of the BLR in a statement. “The vulnerability of illness is now part of daily life in an unprecedented manner; support from the Whiting Foundation will invigorate our work at the intersection of healthcare and the arts.”

“The Whiting Award Literary Magazine Prize will grant us the resources to explore new territories, including expanding our readership, raising honorariums, and much more,” said Arkansas International director of publicity Lily Buday. “We’re also excited to grow both our local and international presence via in-person and virtual events.”

This year’s winners were chosen from an application pool of 100 applicants. The call for applications for the 2022 prizes is now open; the deadline is December 1.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

September 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.
Palmares by Gayl Jones: A signal event in publishing, this is the first of five of Jones’s new novels to be published after 20 years without a new book from the brilliant author of Corregidora, among other novels. (Read more about Jones’s career in this piece by Calvin Baker.) Palmares is a sprawling story set in 17th-century Brazil, and follows an enslaved woman named Almeyda who escapes to a fugitive slave settlement and embarks on a journey to find her lost husband. Imani Perri says that Jones’s work “represents a watershed in American literature. From a literary standpoint, her form is impeccable; from a historical standpoint, she stands at the very cutting edge of understanding the modern world, and as a Black woman writer, her truth-telling, filled with beauty, tragedy, humor, and incisiveness, is unmatched. Jones is a writer’s writer, and her influence is found everywhere.” (Lydia)
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead: Anyone who’s read the author’s The Colossus of New York knows no one writes more expansively and lovingly about New York City than Whitehead. Reminiscent of the work of Chester Himes, Harlem Shuffle starts with a heist and plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. A family saga, a genre-bending a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to New York, particularly Harlem. (Marie)
On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson: Nelson returns to her signature blend of theory, scholarship, criticism, and personal revelation with a meditation on the thorny word “freedom,” and what it means in the world we live in today. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly writes, “Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.” (Lydia)

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall: Whittall’s third novel, The Best Kind of People, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She’s also a screenwriter with credits like The Baroness Von Sketch Show and Schitt’s Creek. This novel tells the story of a 22-year-old woman named Missy who is in a famous band; her mother, Carola, who is recovering from a sex scandal at a yoga center; and grandmother Ruth, who is 83 when Missy winds up crashing at her house. The three stories weave around questions about motherhood: what if you regretted it? Kristen Arnett says, “Whittall addresses motherhood and autonomy in ways I’ve never seen done before.” (Claire)

Bewilderment by Richard Powers: Powers follows The Overstory with a family story, which is also an earth story, about an astrobiologist struggling to raise his angry nine-year-old in the wake of his mother’s death, including using an experimental treatment that involves using the recorded patterns of her brain. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the novel a “taut ecological parable…A touching novel that offers a vital message with uncommon sympathy and intelligence.” (Lydia)
Matrix by Lauren Groff: Groff’s highly anticipated first new novel since Fates and Furies tackles the desire, creativity, and vision of women following “Marie of France” (based on based on 12th-century poet Marie de France) in an arc that covers actual historic event from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. (Marie)

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki: The marvelous Ozeki—novelist, filmmaker, and Buddhist priest—publishes her first novel since A Tale for the Time Being. The new book is the story of Benny Oh, who hears voices—the voices of things that surround him, voices that become more and more insistent as his life becomes more and more chaotic. With her characteristic charm, empathy, and perspicacity, Ozeki writes Benny’s story of learning to hear, and manage, the voices, and hear himself along the way. David Mitchell says “This compassionate novel of life, love and loss glows in the dark. Its strange, beautiful pages turn themselves. If you’ve lost your way with fiction over the last year or two, let The Book of Form and Emptiness light your way home.” (Lydia)

The Archer by Shruti Swamy: Following her collection of short stories, A House Is a Body, which Kiese Laymon called “one of the greatest short story collections of the 2020s,” Swamy returns with a novel set in the Bombay of the 1960s and 1970s, following a young woman named Vidya as she pursues the art form of Kathak, an exacting dance, and confronts the dilemmas that pit art against the demands of wifehood in her time and place. C Pam Zhang called the novel “lush and sensual, tasted and felt, with striking images that play out like film behind the eyes. Swamy evokes an India that resists flat stereotype and teems with exuberance, beauty, and life. The Archer is timeless yet utterly modern as it asks what it means for a woman to make a life of art.” (Lydia)
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr: In 2014, Doerr’s breakout World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See managed to package abstruse physics and a sympathetic young Nazi into a thinking person’s literary thriller that dominated the bestseller lists for months. Seven years later, Doerr is back with another history-driven tale of a long-lost Greek manuscript, which turns up in the library of a spaceship seeking a habitable planet in the 22nd century. Other chapters take place during the 1453 siege of Constantinople and in present-day Idaho. “This is a marvel,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)
How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn: The second collection by the author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes is a series of fiercely observant stories, many of which follow a teenage girl in the aftermath of her father’s death. Set in Southern California, these stories follow her as she grapples with her emerging queer identity, along with the challenges of her life at school and her kinetic and complicated family. In other stories, we see a class of teenagers torment their teacher to the point of mental collapse, as well as another story in which a different group of teens devise a scheme to sell their excess fat and skin. (Thom)

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney: The most widely read, discussed, and argued-about literary novelist of the last five years, Sally Rooney, returns in September with Beautiful World, Where Are You. The contours will sound familiar to anyone versed in Rooneyana: a quartet of friends—Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon—travel, have sex, worry about having sex, worry about themselves and their friendships and aging into adulthood in a very uncertain world. But while Rooney’s plot contrivances may occasionally, at least in summary, seem pat and prefab, her keen and tersely delivered observations about the follies of youth, sex, and friendships never are. (Adam Price)
Chronicles from the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka: The first new novel in 50 years from the Nobel laureate in literature. Chronicles, the third novel from Soyinka, best known for his award-winning plays and poetry (and life of essential political activism), is part whodunit, part social indictment, and as powerful as anything that came before. A Nigerian doctor realizes someone is selling body parts from his hospital for use in ritualistic practices, and with the help of an old friend, he begins to search for the thief—but neither realizes how far the search will take them. Toni Morrison once praised Soyinka, saying “You don’t see things the same when you encounter a voice like that,” and here that voice still has all of its power, wit, beauty, and purpose. (Kaulie)
Harrow by Joy Williams: This novel, Williams’s first in two decades, follows the unlikely (and aged) rebels who sabotage corporations for their complicity in environmental destruction. Who better than Williams to capture pure-hearted but absurd efforts to retrieve paradise lost? (Nick M.)

Misfits by Michaela Coel: I May Destroy You was some of the most powerful television I have seen in recent years, an incredible exploration of trauma, violence, work, friendship, social media, and art (complete with a storyline about writers’ block). Subtitled A Personal Manifesto, Misfits is a book from Coel, who is both the brilliant mind behind the show and its star, built off the MacTaggart Lecture she delivered at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Coel weaves stories of her own life with a call to honesty and action for everyone who has struggled to fit in. (Lydia)

Martita, I Remember You by Sandra Cisneros (translated by Liliana Valenzuela): The legendary Cisneros returns with a novel published as a dual English-Spanish edition, a story of a woman who leaves her Mexican American family in Chicago and spends wild young days in Paris, forming a friendship with two other women that resurfaces years later with the chance discovery of an old letter. (Lydia)

The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine: National Book Award finalist Alameddine’s sixth novel tells the story of Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor and trans woman who travels to the Greek island of Lesbos to provide aid at an infamous refugee camp. For decades, Mina has avoided traveling so close to her homeland, but she decided to visit the camp to accomplish something meaningful. But when she meets Sumaiya, a Syrian woman with terminal liver cancer, and tries to chart a course of treatment with the limited resources on the island, she’s forced to reckon with the scale of the migrants’ suffering, along with as her own limitations. (Thom)
A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris: Acclaimed novelist and short story writer Ferris returns in 2021 with A Calling for Charlie Barnes. Charlie Barnes, a multiply divorced romantic and schemer whose hopes for delivery are dashed by the financial crisis and a medical disaster, gets one more chance for redemption in the form of his storytelling son. Ferris is one of the master chroniclers of our declining American empire and spirit—his special gift is delivering the bad news with both laughs and an enormous amount of empathy that, at his best, recalls the work of Emerson and Thoreau. In the words of Dana Spiotta, “Joshua Ferris is one of our best writers, and A Calling for Charlie Barnes is wonderful: fast and deep, urgent and brilliant. Ingeniously written, it had me up reading late into the night. A hilarious, intimate, and scathing takedown of so many American vanities.” (Adam Price)
The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff): Even when considered alongside Jaeggy’s other singular and slim novels, The Water Statues is a peculiar book. Within, Jaeggy tells the story of family and isolation, and the inheritance of loneliness and emotional poverty that accompanies wealth (in line with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, though that’s where comparisons end). This “strange and shimmering nonlinear text” is voluptuous yet melancholic and austere. Which seems in line with Jaeggy’s profession that, “One should be in one’s own void. Void is silence. Solitude. An absence of relationships…The void is a plant that must continually be watered.” (Anne)

The Magician by Colm Tóibín: Scribner describes Tóibín’s most recent project as “a stunning marriage of research and imagination” in this, his exploration of the life and art of Thomas Mann. Tóibín’s refined gift is about as perfect a match as could be imagined for the construction of a nuanced portrait of a complicated man and artist living in a complex period of modern history. (Il’ja)

Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor: Kellor’s memoir describes her travels through China as a young multiracial woman, relaying her years living in China, falling in love, speaking her mother tongue, working, traveling, and searching for what called her to a place that is both familiar and not. Cheryl Strayed said of the memoir, “I loved this book. It’s vulnerable, searching, insightful, riveting and beautifully written.” (Lydia)

Hao by Ye Chun: A collection of stories that take place in China and America within the Chinese Diaspora, spanning time and place and focusing on the lives and struggles of women as they wrestle with everything that attends migration, motherhood, and personhood. Lynn Steger Strong says of the collection, “Each of these stories is an individual world brought to life fully by the particularity of its language, by Ye’s extraordinarily far-reaching and deeply felt imagination, combined with her consistently stunning acuity and control.” (Lydia)

Kaya Days by Carl de Souza (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman): Named for the days of protest and mourning that followed the death of Mauritian musician Joseph Réginald Topize, or Kaya, at the hands of police, the debut novel by de Souza follows a woman through Mauritius as she searches for her missing brother, delineating the many intersecting worlds of the island nation at a revolutionary moment. J.M.G. Le Clézio calls the novel “a searing, urgent, far-seeing dispatch that imprints the reality of Mauritius, at odds with its picture-postcard views, on the global consciousness. Carl de Souza is a formidable voice in Mauritian literature; his account is an indictment and a plea for understanding among its communities.” (Lydia)
The Morning Store by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken): The mega-popular Norwegian author’s latest novel centers on a cast of characters who witness a bizarre astronomical phenomenon. On a normal night in August, a group of tangentially related people in the Norwegian resort town of Sørlandet watch as a massive star suddenly appears in the night sky. No one—including the astronomers—knows just what the star is or why it appeared. The days wear on, unusual and baffling things begin to occur, and the characters grapple with these events and their impact on their lives. (Thom)
Inter State by José Vadi: As award-winning writer Vadi examines California with anger and love in his first essay collection, he centers the ever-changing Golden State and includes wildfires, dive bars, the tech industry, farmwork, decay, and wealth. Nina Renata Aron describes Vadi as an “ethnographer-on-a-skateboard” and Publishers Weekly describes the book as “part love letter, part indictment.” Vadi’s writing style has received much advanced praise: Kirkus says that “at a line level, the book is outstanding, filled with long, breathless sentences, innovative syntax,” and Melissa Valentine recommends that “with smart prose and daring form, these are perfect essays for our complicated times.” (Zoë)

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks: Margaret, the once head dectective of the Girls Can Solve Anything club, is at a major crossroads in her life: her friends have abandoned her; she’s developed an all-consuming eating disorder; and she would rather solve cases than grow up. When she enters inpatient treatment for her anorexia, Margaret dusts off her dectective skills to solve mysteries—including, and especially, how to live and grow and become the person you’re meant to be. About Milks’ genre-bending debut novel, Torrey Peters writes: “What if all those nineties book series about girlhood had been truly honest about the process of growing up? You’d get this wonderful book: a comforting facade that opens into an entrancing and wildly innovative gut-renovation of the genre, with an interior that lays bare the hidden workings of life I wish I’d known on my own first run through adolescence. Brilliant.” (Carolyn)

The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel: Set in a distant (and increasingly possible) future devastated by climate change and endless pandemics, Kobo—a body-hacker who works as a baseball scout for Big Phrama-owne baseball teams—is struggling. When his brother is murdered on the baseball field, Kobo dives into a dangerous and corrupt underworld to hunt down the killer. “This novel is delightful in its brio and sharp as a tack in its inventiveness—and yet its greatest, most poignant gift is in asking: What does it mean to inhabit a body? A superb read,” says Esmé Weijun Wang. (Carolyn).

Letters to Amelia by Lindsay Zier-Vogel: Zier-Vogel’s debut novel follows 30-year-old Grace Porter, who is grieving the sudden end of her longterm relationship, as she discovers the love letters between Amelia Earhart and her lover, Gene Vidal. After Grace discovers she’s pregnant, she begins writing her own letters to Amelia—and searching for answers as to what happened to the infamous pilot. Jon McGregor calls Letters to Amelia “a wonderful novel about flight and passion, about love-letters and reaching out; a novel about how we never know quite what’s coming next, but still keep launching ourselves into the blue tomorrow.” (Carolyn)

Assembly by Natasha Brown: Assembly’s young, successful, Black protagonist is wondering how she can take control of her life while navigating a toxic career, contemplating her relationship with her wealthy white boyfriend, and worrying over potential life-or-death decision. Brown’s debut novel is a slim but affecting portrayal of the race, class, and sexual politics in contemporary Britain. Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo says: “Natasha Brown’s exquisite prose, daring structure and understated elegance are utterly captivating. She is a stunning new writer.” (Carolyn)

Other Girls to Burn by Caroline Crew: Winner of the Sue William Silverman Prize in Creative Nonfiction, Crew’s essay collection blends cultural criticism and personal essay to  explore the relationship between women and violence. Alexander Chee, who selected the collection for the prize, says: “The world turns in Crew’s vision, essay by essay, renewed or revealed in ways only she can provide, and all of it brought to us in a voice I’d follow into any topic—propulsive, lyrical, able to turn on a dime, as the expression goes. . . . An unforgettable debut. ” (Carolyn)

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang: In her debut, coming-of-age memoir, Wang writes about moving to and living in New York City as an undocumented immigrant—as her family seeks out the ever-present and alluring American Dream. “Beautiful Country is the real deal,” writes Gish Jen. “Heartrending, unvarnished, and powerfully courageous, this account of growing up undocumented in America will never leave you.” (Carolyn)

The Breaks by Julietta Singh: In her newest work of nonfiction, Singh (No Archive Will Restore You) writes a gorgeous and poetic letter to her six-year-old daughter about everything from late-stage capitalism and climate change to queer families and parenting “at the end of the world.” Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls the slim books “a stunning work.” (Carolyn)

The Millions Top Ten: July 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 July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Klara and the Sun
5 months

2.
3.

Fake Accounts
6 months

3.
4.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
5 months

4.
8.

The Great Mistake
2 months

5.
10.

Subdivision
3 months

6.
7.

Outlawed

4 months

7.
9.

Women and Other Monsters
3 months

8.


Craft and the Real World
2 months

9.


The House on Vesper Sands
1 month

10.


The Committed
1 month

Three books head to our Hall of Fame this month, and several books swapped places. Basically, our Top Ten did the Cha-Cha Slide. (“Slide to the left / slide to the right / criss-cross!”)

Before we welcome the new additions, let’s take it back now, y’all. After six months of strong showings, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, No One Is Talking About This, and Detransition, Baby have each graduated. It’s the first time for Patricia Lockwood and Torrey Peters, but it’s the fourth book George Saunders has sent to our Hall: Tenth of December made it in ’13, Fox 8 in ’14, and Lincoln in the Bardo in ’17. (“Everybody clap your hands!”)

The new books on this month’s list are The Committed, The House on Vesper Sands, and Craft and the Real World—the latter returning after a one-month absence. In a piece for our site early this year, Neelanjana Banerjee called Craft and the Real World “a blueprint for a way forward to build better writing programs, and thus a new kind of writer and teacher who can imagine beyond a structure that often hurt them and left them in need of repair.”

Among the near misses this month are Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch and Dana Spiotta’s Whereabouts. The Millions interviewed both authors last month, and you can read those here, and here, respectively.

That’s all for now, so cha cha real smooth until next month.

This month’s near misses included: Nightbitch, Whereabouts, Vernon Subutex, Great Circle and Wayward. See Also: Last month’s list.

Writers to Watch: Fall 2021

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Explorations of class, race, and sexuality play out in many of this fall’s notable fiction debuts, including a novel about a young Black woman working in financial services, a South Korean gay romance, and more.
Nawaaz Ahmed: Supersized and Fully Formed
In 1994, Nawaaz Ahmed left India for a graduate program in computer science at Cornell. “I don’t think in India you go around saying, ‘I want to be a writer,’” he says from his home in Brooklyn. Like his debut, Radiant Fugitives (Counterpoint, Aug.), which Publishers Weekly called “dazzling” in a starred review, the path to writing a novel was long and windy, and informed by his political consciousness as a gay Muslim immigrant.
Ahmed took a job in the Bay Area with Inktomi in 2000, touted at the time as the next Microsoft, he says. Two years later its stock plummeted from a peak of $241 to a quarter a share, and the company was sold to Yahoo. By 2007 he’d become involved with book clubs and writing groups mainly comprising other South Asians and went part-time at Yahoo to focus on his writing. In 2009 he left for the University of Michigan, expecting to finish a book by the time his MFA scholarship support ran out. “But it took 10 years,” he adds, laughing.
The first drafts of Radiant Fugitives, about an Indian woman condemned by her father for being queer, were shorter and more focused on a family drama. But as Ahmed became galvanized by the uncertainty around the marriage equality fight during the early Obama years and the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, after having already taken part in actions with Asian LGBTQ groups in the Bay Area, those issues began entering the book.
He says it was both exciting and scary to write explicitly about homosexuality, because of the small number of gay Muslim writers who were published. “But I was like, how can you not? I have to take part in the struggle for visibility,” he adds.
The draft Ahmed worked on with agent Anjali Singh sprawled to 800 pages, almost twice the length it’d ultimately publish as. Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint read all of it. “It’s that moment when the lightning comes down and your hair is on fire and all of those terrible metaphors that editors use,” he says. “It was such an ambitious draft, supersized and fully formed.”
Xavier Navarro Aquino: A Wicked Dew
Four days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Xavier Navarro Aquino returned there from Lincoln, Nebr., where he was completing a PhD in English, to help his family. His mother lives in Vega Baja, where he was raised, and much of his family lives in various parts of the island’s northern coast.
“It wasn’t easy for me to process and want to write about it,” Aquino says from his home in Lincoln, where he is preparing to move to South Bend, Ind., to teach at Notre Dame. But from that experience came the idea for a story of a girl named Camila who finds her sister encased in a mudslide. It became the germ for Velorio (HarperVia, Jan. 2022), a polyphonic novel of Maria’s aftermath.
“I used the framework of Lord of the Flies to imagine a society after the natural disaster because it wasn’t far from reality,” Aquino says. “I saw how the rules and laws had degraded, and how degradation mixed with fears of abandonment, which had exacerbated a very fragile electric grid, economic system, and diaspora.”
By then, Aquino already had an agent, Jin Auh, whom he’d met at the Sewanee Writers Conference. During a residency at MacDowell in 2019, he wrote a full draft of Velorio in a fever pitch. “I was very surprised with how it just fell into my imagination and the words would just flow, but it was a strange time,” he says. “I think I felt a little crazy, and told I friend I felt like I was hearing voices.”
When Aquino met with Tara Parsons, editor and associate publisher at HarperVia, he was excited to hear that she understood what he was doing with the multitude of voices, and that she didn’t want him to change it—something Jin had warned him might happen with other editors. One of the most important voices was that of the complex character Urayoán, whom Aquino hesitatingly calls an “antagonist,” because Urayoán speaks to the effects of U.S. colonization, sometimes in ways that are not immediately coherent. “I was sort of trying to draw from Derek Walcott’s commentary on Caliban,” Aquino says. “In The Tempest, Caliban carries the most beautiful language but is often overlooked.”
Natasha Brown: Everybody Hurts
I think STEM careers are really good options for a lot of people,” says Natasha Brown, a writer from London who studied math at Cambridge and spent a decade working in financial services. “They can really be good opportunities to buy yourself some time to produce creative work.”
In 2019, after writing on the side and taking workshops, Brown received support from the London Writers Award and finished her first novel, Assembly (Little, Brown, Sept.), which PW’s starred review called “a stunning achievement of compressed narrative and fearless articulation.”
Assembly follows a young Black woman working at an investment bank, whose visit to her white fiancé’s family estate is dampened by her recent breast cancer diagnosis, and whose career success is met with blatant racism and sexism from bitter associates at her workplace. Clocking in at 112 pages with a small trim size, and punctuated by fragments of prose and verse along with references to theories from bell hooks and Claudia Rankine, it’s not a conventional novel, but it tells an age-old story.
“It’s like a ‘to be or not to be’ story, but about race,” says Jean Garnett, an editor at Little, Brown, who acquired the book during Frankfurt last year. “You have a character who’s thinking, is this worth enduring? Except Natasha’s character is way less whiny and indulgent than Hamlet.”
It’s a story that’s more commonly told in white literary fiction. “The stories I’ve really enjoyed have been about middle-class lack of satisfaction,” Brown says. “But for people of color, for Black women specifically, if we do get a story about someone being successful, it’s always a story of being grateful. It’s kind of limiting and a little bit dehumanizing to not recognize that everybody feels dissatisfied with their lives sometimes.”
Reading Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely helped show Brown new possibilities for writing about Black experiences, she says, and Lydia Davis’s and Maggie Nelson’s work opened up a sense of playfulness in mixing genres and weaving tangential threads.
As a result, Assembly sometimes has the feeling of an essay. “The narrator looks out at the reader to say, ‘I see you,’” Garnett says. “I’m not encased in a fictional universe, I’m here in the same world and we’re having a conversation about that world.”
Ash Davidson: Paradise Lost
Ash Davidson was too young to remember her early few years in Klamath, Calif., but her parents’ stories formed a powerful mythology of a seaside idyll destroyed by logging. “My parents were very clear that this was the most beautiful place they’d ever lived,” she says. But the herbicides used by loggers poisoned their drinking water, prompting the family to develop a habit of never drinking from a tap, no matter where they are.
Davidson’s novel, Damnation Spring (Scribner, Aug.), is set in a place similar to Klamath in the 1970s, where a logger buys a grove of redwoods to invest in his family’s future. It explores the tension between a working-class community’s economic livelihood, the health risks posed by logging, and the environmentalists who spotlight its devastation. PW called it a “heart-wrenching modern American tragedy.”
To write the book, Davidson took a trip back to Klamath for research, hoping to talk to people who were affected by the pollution. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and couldn’t get people to speak with me,” she says. Then, with her mother, she went to a community dinner. “We walked in and you could just hear the heads turn.”
After a woman recognized her mother, she introduced Davidson to a former logger. “He told me he’d actually been sprayed while he was working, and shared how it affected his eyes, his breathing, and his skin,” she says. “That was the moment that I realized: this person’s family was drinking the water.”
At that point, Davidson says, she was able to approach the characters with empathy.
The book took a decade to write, and her agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, helped her across the finish line. They’d met when Davidson was working on short stories at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and he suggested she write a novel. “I sent him an email five years later saying, ‘Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but you were right, and here’s this novel, would you look at it?’ ” she recalls.
He did, and when Parris-Lamb sent it to Kathy Belden, executive editor at Scribner, it didn’t take long for her to respond. “I like fiction that does societal work being done in service of the story,” Belden says. “It feels like an old-fashioned big American novel.”
Jo Hamya: Do They Owe Us a Living?
When did it become ridiculous to think that a stable economy and a fair housing market were reasonable expectations?” asks the unnamed narrator of Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Aug.). It’s a spiky riff on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, dialing into the dwindling prospects for university graduates in the U.K. and the conservative politics behind Brexit.
After taking an MA at Oxford, Hamya faced her share of precarity while working an unstable magazine job, which she ended up quitting because it didn’t line up with her long-range goal to be a university lecturer. “My protagonist is the sort of person I would hate to end up becoming,” Hamya says. “She’s very indecisive and ineffectual, and confined by circumstance.”
The book developed after the Brexit referendum as Hamya and her friends began to feel that they would never be able to buy their own homes. Hamya is half Polish and grew up watching her parents achieve progressively better lives. “They had kind of gotten the better deal out of Blairism and social mobility,” she says, “and I had maybe slightly naive expectations of how life should turn out.”
Hamya finished the book in March 2020, a week or two before England went into lockdown. “I’d sent it to a handful of agents who hadn’t responded, and so I’d sort of given up,” she says. But a few friends asked to read the manuscript, one of whom worked at Penguin, and though the friend said she wouldn’t be able to do anything, the book got passed around. Two weeks later Hamya received a call from Ana Fletcher, senior editor at Jonathan Cape.
“Sort of halfway through the conversation I began to clock that she was interested in acquiring it,” Hamya says. Fletcher helped her connect with agent Harriet Moore to negotiate the deal, and by August, the North American rights were sold to HMH at auction.
Hamya says she wasn’t sure how the book would be received in the U.S., given its focus on British politics, and was heartened to receive an enthusiastic letter from a bookseller in Alabama. “Maybe it’s because there was this overlap of news feeds in 2016 and 2020, where we had Boris Johnson and you guys had Trump,” she notes. “Both sides of the Atlantic were melting.”
Tracey Lange: Breaking the Bonds
In the opening scene of Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans (Celadon, Aug.), a young woman named Sunday Brennan drives into a Los Angeles freeway divider while drunk, prompting her bar-owner brother to bring her back home to New York City. With the crash, Sunday has reached the end of the line in an attempt to start a new life away from her Irish Catholic family.
“I come from a big Irish Catholic crew,” says Lange, who now lives in Oregon and was raised in an Upper West Side apartment building where her father worked as the super. “My dad was one of 15 kids from Ireland, and I just loved being around that kind of clan feeling. There’s so much fodder to dig into.”
The story isn’t autobiographical, but Lange, like Sunday, also headed west once she came of age, settling first in Arizona, where, with her husband, she built and ran a business providing behavioral health services for 15 years. “The focus was so much about the family, and what makes a family work and not work,” she says.
Several years ago, Lange was able to focus solely on her writing, and completed the manuscript while enrolled in an online novel writing program at Stanford. “The program came at a great time because I trying to wrap my mind around the novel’s multiple point of view,” she says. In doing so, she was able to get underneath the surface of the guarded members of the Brennan clan.
Describing her own extended family, Lange says, “There’s a great closeness, but there’s also a lot of hiding flaws and a lot of shame, whether it’s mental illness issues, drug use, financial worries, or divorce. I felt very connected to Sunday, growing up in a family where there’s a bit of keeping things on the down low.”
Lange met agent Stephanie Cabot at a writers’ conference in Kauai, Hawaii. Cabot was impressed by her pitch and her professionalism, and saw how the book fit in her wheelhouse. “I’m always drawn to this idea that history is always with us,” Cabot says. “I think she pulled it off really well. There’s a lot of heart and emotion and compassion.”
Claire Luchette: Out of the Habit
In summer 2016, Claire Luchette was in graduate school at the University of Oregon, broke and eating expired yogurt while working on short stories. She remembered something her nun macroeconomics teacher would always say at her Jesuit high school back in Chicago: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The line inspired her to write the story “New Bees,” which was published in Ploughshares and became her meal ticket for a series of writing residencies.
The story also became her way into the novel Agatha of Little Neon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug.), which PW called “a lovely story of… cross-cultural exchange.” It takes place in a halfway house in Rhode Island, where a group of nuns explore their sense of agency as well as their sexuality.
“I was wondering how nuns could live with the fact that in the eyes of the church they’re second-class citizens,” Luchette says. At the time, Donald Trump was on the rise and she was thinking a lot about power and inequality. “It stoked a lot of rage.”
She also developed the theme of conviction. “What if you revisited this thing you always assumed was true about yourself?” she asks. “That’s something the church doesn’t really make possible. At the time, I was starting to ask questions about my own sexuality, and it seemed natural for the characters.”
In 2018 Luchette finished what she calls “a crappy first draft” and sent it to agents. One of them was Julie Barer, whom she cold queried despite having a friend already represented by Barer. “I was insistent on doing it myself and not have anyone, you know, introduce me and make it easier,” she says.
Barer encouraged Luchette to coax out the themes of identity in the story, which Luchette thinks was the right move. “I never wanted this to be a coming-out story,” she says, “but I did want it to ask some of the same questions, and she made that seem possible.”
As early readers start to weigh in, Luchette finds the responses really moving, but she also continues to feel anxious. “I’m still not sure how to manage the fact that people will find in it what they will,” she says. “It’s a really specific kind of vulnerability to share the last five years of one’s life with complete strangers.”
Wanda M. Morris: A New Kind of Legal Thriller
After I started this book 13 years ago, I put it down,” says Wanda M. Morris, speaking of All Her Little Secrets (Morrow, Nov.). “I convinced myself nobody was going to want to read a story about a 40-ish Black woman who has to bring down a group of awful people.”
Morris continued her career as a corporate lawyer in Atlanta, where she has lived and worked for the past two decades, and where the book is set. It follows a woman named Ellice Littlejohn who has a corporate counsel job and discovers her boss’s dead body, with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Ellice and her boss had been having an affair, and he’d asked her to meet him that morning. As the plot unfolds, readers will be reminded of John Grisham’s The Firm for the way Ellice uncovers criminal activity at the company and confronts an ethical dilemma.
After a health scare several years ago, Morris realized it was time to finish the project. “I thought, I’m in this high-pressure job and I have a family and I’m trying to do all these things and be all these things to everyone else,” she recalls. “And what am I doing for me?”
Morris’s longtime interest in writing was partly what made her want to become a lawyer. She reads widely, from biographies to poetry to literary fiction, but she’s mainly drawn to mysteries. “I like that whole figuring out the puzzle,” she says. But she hungered for stories that featured smart Black female protagonists.
“I like the idea of, you know, a Black woman chasing down bad guys in dark office towers,” Morris says. “But I just didn’t see a lot of books like that on the shelf. I think Toni Morrison probably launched a lot of careers when she said, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ And so I did.”
Sang Young Park: A Cosmopolitan Romance
Alexander Chee turned more than a few heads this past winter when he interviewed Korean writer Sang Young Park and announced on Twitter that Park’s Love in the Big City (Grove, Nov.; trans. from the Korean by Anton Hur) was “the first gay novel published in South Korea,” where it appeared in 2019. Previously, Hur has heralded the work of Park’s queer South Korean predecessors.
“There are things that would be very relatable for American millennial readers, like an experience someone could be having in Brooklyn,” says Peter Blackstock, editor at Grove. “And then there’s the dimension of mandatory military service.”
Early on, the narrator recounts how he has a female friend send him love letters while in boot camp, so his fellow trainees won’t think he’s gay. Later, back in Seoul, he has a string of sexual encounters until he finds love.
For Park, Seoul loomed in his early years as a promise of liberation. “I was raised in Daegu,” he says via his translator, Hur, “which is notorious for being conservative. Throughout my teenage years all I could dream of was escaping.” After leaving to study at Sungkyunkwan University, he found in Seoul “a good place for anyone in the minority to meet others anonymously and stay hidden in the crowds.”
As a writer, Park was inspired by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, as well as by French writers such as Annie Ernaux and Margeurite Duras, and he also drew on Korean and American pop culture. His story “Searching for Paris Hilton” won him a debut writer prize. “Maybe Paris Hilton herself was a deeply inspirational figure to me,” he jokes.
He hopes American readers will dive into the Korean references in his work. “I mention a lot of K-pop acts that are not BTS and Blackpink, who are already super famous in America, so I hope readers check them out,” Park says.
Blackstock notes that Grove editorial assistant Yvonne Cha, who read the whole book in Korean, was instrumental to the acquisition, and says they hope to reach an audience of Korean American readers. “It was really cool to have her make the case,” he adds.
Javier Serena: Books Nobody Wants to Read
What if a blockbuster author of the Spanish-speaking world, whose stature reached mythic proportions just before he died, had toiled for years in obscurity because his early work wasn’t all that great? Spanish writer Javier Serena explores this question in Last Words on Earth (Open Letter, Sept.; trans. from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore), about a Roberto Bolaño-esque writer named Ricardo Funes.
Asked about how the book was received in Spain, where it was first published in 2017, Serena, who aspired to become a writer as Bolaño’s work began to make a splash in the late 1990s, says via Whittemore, “Bolaño is still a delicate topic among the Spanish literary elite. He’s still treated with kid gloves by the people who were close to him. It’s not a topic that people just jump into.”
At least not in Madrid, where Serena lives and works for Latin American cultural exchange program, or Barcelona, near where Bolaño lived when he was in Spain. But Chad Post, publisher and editor at Open Letter, was more than happy to take it on. “It’s an incredibly moving book,” says Post. “I think it really hits home with people who work in creative fields where you don’t know where your success and value is going to come from and at what point in time.”
Post received a sample from Whittemore before the 2019 AWP conference in Portland, Ore., and then at the conference, Whittemore told him about Serena’s other book, Atila, about the writer Aliocha Coll, and a third forthcoming in Spanish. “So we started conceiving of this as a three-book project that groups together novels about the writing life and an unwavering commitment to your art and how that plays out for people,” Post says.
Serena wants to make clear that his character Funes is not Bolaño, but says he was inspired by the gulf between Bolaño’s day-to-day life and the image he’d cultivated. “We like to think of him as this sort of like punk hippie writer on the margins, but for a while, he was just like, dithering around this town and trying to write books that nobody wanted to read.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

August Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: In her ambitious fiction debut, the 2020 National Book Award-nominated poet meditates on African-American history from the colonial slave trade to our current, turbulent age. Ailey Pearl Garfield, the protagonist of the novel, grows up navigating W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Double Consciousness” in everyday life in the deep South. Her mother’s side of family was taken to the U.S. as enslaved people. The female members of her family, in particular, went through many shocking experiences. Coming of age, Ailey learns to fully embrace her heritage by exploring and understanding the traumatic memories of her family. (Jianan)
Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Moreno-Garcia follows up her bestselling Mexican Gothic with a noirish thriller set amid the political upheaval in 1970s Mexico City. A mousy secretary named Maite is envious of the racy life of her neighbor Leonora, a beautiful art student who goes missing. Determined to solve the mystery, Maite is soon joined in her quest by a hired thug named Elvis, who is also on Leonara’s trail. Linked by their shared love for old movies, comics and rock ’n’ roll, the unlikely duo is sucked into a world of students, radicals, Russian spies, hit men, and government agents who will kill to protect Leonora’s dark secrets. (Bill) 

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker: Booker Prize-winning Barker got her start writing about the English working-class women she grew up with. Eventually she branched out and wrote The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of The Iliad from the eyes of an enslaved girl. She has followed that with The Women of Troy, in which the conquered titular women, led by Briseis, plot their revenge against their Greek captors, whose triumphal trip home with their spoils is delayed by uncooperative winds. Once again, Barker uses blunt prose to tell human stories that strip the romance from one of literature’s enduring epics. (Bill)

Edge Case by YZ Chin: In a follow-up to her award-winning story collection, Though I Get Home, Chin’s debut novel follows Edwina, a Malaysian immigrant living in New York City, after she is abandoned by her husband. As she searches for him, Edwina thinks back on their relationship—and navigates her feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and (perhaps misplaced) loyalty. About the book, Chia-Chia Lin writes: “A quirky story of loss and limbo, Edge Case immerses us in the worries, hopes, and absurdities of life on a work visa in America.” (Carolyn)
The President and the Frog by Carolina De Robertis: Inspired by the life of Uruguay’s former president José Mujica, De Robertis’ latest novel follows the 82-year-old protagonist (the “Poorest President in the World”) as he’s interviewed by a journalist. Switching between the present and memories of the past, the president—a former guerrilla, revolutionary, and political prisoner—remembers the most monumental moments of his life. About this survival story, Madeline Miller writes: “Playful and profound, unearthly yet deeply rooted, this sublime and gripping novel is above all about hope: that within the world’s messy pain there is still room for transformation and healing.” (Carolyn)
Savage Tongues by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi: Written with the intensity of early Duras and Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Savage Tongues, Van der Vliet Oloomi’s third novel, is “relentless in the best way.” Iranian-American Arezu returns to her father’s Spanish pied-a-terre that she has just inherited, conjuring the memory of an intense and catastrophic affair she had 20 years previous. With the help of a dear friend, Arezu excavates and puts words to her past trauma in this novel about love, friendship, identity, and displacement. As Garth Greenwell attests, Savage Tongues “lives at the border of memory and dream, restlessly seeking a logic that can transform cruelty into love.” (Anne)

Real Estate by Deborah Levy: Real Estate, the third and final book of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography,” takes on the idea of home and houses in many iterations: the haunted, the literary, and what homespace means to a woman writer. Levy considers much about unreal estate too, as the narrator collects her fantasy dream homes. “Domestic space,” Levy observes, “if it is not an affliction bestowed on us by patriarchy, can be a powerful space.” And in essence, puts forth what has always been at the heart of this project, “to embody and make present a female mind.” (Anne)

Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman. Following You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and a story collection, Intimations, Kleeman returns to the novel form with East Coaster Patrick coming to Hollywood to oversee the film adaptation of one of his books. He ends up, with the help of a former child star, on a mission to find out the secrets of WAT-R, a synthetic water in this satirical and imaginative novel about climate change, consumerism, fake news, informational overload, and a Hamlet problem. (Marie)
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So. This is the debut collection of Cambodian American So, who tragically died suddenly in 2020 (his Year in Reading was published posthumously at The Millions). The collection slipstreams between humor and pathos—as suggested in the title “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a story that appeared in The New Yorker—as the characters carry the residue of the Khmer Rouge genocide through immigration, race, sexuality, friendship, and family. “Like beams of wry, affectionate light, falling from different directions on a complicated, struggling, beloved American community,” says George Saunders. (Marie)
All’s Well by Mona Awad: “Dear Readers: This is one wild book!,” said Margaret Atwood on Twitter, “No holds barred.” It’s the story of Miranda Fitch, who had an accident that ended her acting career and left her with chronic back pain. She’s on the verge of losing her teaching job at a college, and facing a mutinous cast, when three strange benefactors show up. They know about her past and make alluring promises for the future—what could go wrong? If you had the pleasure of reading Awad’s acclaimed novel Bunny, you know the answer is everything and the result will be, as Heather O’Neill says, “equal parts brilliant and hilarious.” (Claire)

The Turnout by Megan Abbott: “Ballet flows through their veins,” says the description of this book, and Abbott’s many fans will know how unnerving these five words will turn out to be. This is the 10th novel from the bestselling author who looks at femininity and power like no one else. It’s about a ballet studio run by two sisters with long necks, taut buns, and pink tights. When a suspicious accident happens just before the annual performance of The Nutcracker, an interloper arrives and threatens to upset everything. (Claire)
Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette: The eponymous Agatha of Luchette’s debut novel has been a nun for nine years when her parish closes and she and her three sisters must move to a former mill town to take over a halfway house. In Woonsocket, Agatha becomes a teacher at an all-girls’ school and must face the world without her fellow nuns and the comfort of their closed world. Cristina Henríquez says the book is “blazingly original, wry, and perfectly attuned to the oddness—and the profundity—of life” and Karen Thompson Walker highlights Luchette’s “sneaky deadpan wit.” (Edan)
Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed: Ahmed’s debut novel, about three generations of women from a Muslim Indian family, is told from the point of view of heroine Seema’s baby—at the moment of its birth. Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls it “dazzling, heartrending,” and Peter Ho Davies named it “a rare marvel, an intimate epic of faith and family, love and politics, knit together by a magical omniscience of profound compassion.” If that’s not enough for you, rumor has it that the ending is brilliant, and reframes the entire book. (Edan)

The Shimmering State by Meredith Westgate: There’s a new drug on the streets of LA: Mem, in the form of shimmering pills, contains happy memories selected to treat Alzheimer’s patients. It’s also a hit on the black market and among the elite, offering users short glimpses of someone else’s life. Though Lucien and Sophie came to the drug in different ways, it leads them both to a rehab facility run by Mem’s producers—though they’re sure they’ve run into each other before. Our own Lydia Kiesling calls The Shimmering State “hypnotic,” “a shimmering, dreamlike experience of multiple lives that collide and repel,” and, ultimately, a “beautifully dystopian shot at redemption.” (Kaulie)

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya: Virginia Woolf said we women writers need rooms of our own; Hamya’s unnamed narrator can only manage a succession of domestic way-places, a small collection of rented rooms and childhood bedrooms. It’s 2018 and the mood in Britain is dark, smothered by both increasingly obvious inequality and instability and the realization that nobody knows what to do about it. Meanwhile, the narrator of Three Rooms shuffles from research job to temp gig, spending a lot of time online and searching for her place in the world, wondering when it all became so hard. If this sounds dark, it may be, but there’s no denying it strikes a chord, amplified by the beautifully spare prose—think Rachel Cusk, fresh from grad school. (Kaulie)

Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria: Journalist Zakaria has written a rebuttal to the feminism promulgated by white upper-middle-class women, including the “aid-industrial complex,” in a book that focuses on women of color and rejects “white feminism’s global, long-standing affinity with colonial, patriarchal, and white supremacist ideals.” (Lydia)

Names for Light by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint: Winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, Myint’s lyrical memoir shifts from her family’s roots and her birth in Myanmar to her childhood in Bangkok and San Jose, moving through her own life and the lives of her family members, narrating events in both the near and distant past. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “An imaginative and compelling memoir about what we inherit and what we pass on.” (Lydia)

The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero (translated by Annie McDermott): This is the latest posthumously translated novel from the Uruguayan Levrero, whose Montevideo apartment was, to quote his translator McDermott, “the centre of a small universe…his legendary literary workshops, which followed an ‘unmethodical method’ designed to put people in touch with their imagination, produced hundreds of students who consider themselves his disciples.” Here, a novelist receives a generous grant that produces an insuperable writer’s block. As with Empty Words, in which the protagonist attempts “graphological self-therapy” (handwriting exercises) to better himself, this is a digressive, Sternean tale in which interruption becomes a kind of illumination. (Matt)

Blind Man’s Bluff by James Tate Hill: In his debut memoir, Hill details how he hid his blindness from the world for nearly 15 years. After he was diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy at 16, he discovered how to pass as sighted in ingenious, robust, and dangerous ways—until his life began to crumble under the weight of his denial. Rebecca Makkai writes, “Told with humor and grace, Blind Man’s Bluff is a story of reinventions—ones both enormous and minute, ones both forced and earned. It’s also an education, and an illumination.” (Carolyn)

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy: In a follow-up to her national bestselling novel, Migrations, McConaghy writes about twins Inti and Aggie Flynn, who are both dealing and healing from trauma. Biologist Inti and her colleagues are attempting to rewild the remote Scottish Highlands and things seem to be going well—until a man is found dead and Inti makes a life-altering decision. Booklist’s starred review calls the novel “a powerful meditation on humanity, nature and the often frightening animalistic impulses lurking within us all.” (Carolyn)

Ramadan Ramsey by Louis Edwards: Guggenheim Fellow and Whiting Award winner Edwards returns with his newest novel follows two families across decades and continents. Set in 1999 New Orleans, Alicia Ramsey, a young Black woman, and Mustafa Totah, a Syrian immigrant, meet and fall in love before Mustafa returns to Syriah not knowing Alicia is pregnant with his son, Ramadan. Years later, 12-year-old Ramadan sets off to find his father—a journey that leads him through a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, Istanbul, and Alleppo. Alice Randall writes: “An immediate global classic, Ramadan Ramsey joins the ranks of Sula, Oliver Twist, and Moll Flanders, as a tale named for a character that invites readers into a world both hyper-local and universal.” (Carolyn)

The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s (The Swan Gondola) newest novel is full of decadence, intrigue, and danger. Clementine, a 72-year-old queer ex-pat and former con artist, is living in Pariss when she’s  roped into her final—and perhaps most dangerous—job: to steal the recipe book of a missing Parisian perfumer before it falls into the hands of the Nazis forever. About the novel, our own Emily St. John Mandel writes: “This is historical fiction at its finest, vivid and beautifully rendered.” (Carolyn)

 When the Reckoning Comes by LaTanya McQueen: When Mira left her small, segregated hometown, she also left behind her white best friend Celine, the haunted Woodsman plantation, and Jesse, the boy she quietly loved. When she returns to attend Celine’s wedding on Woodsman plantation, which is now a vacation resort, Mira realizes no renovation could bury the property’s racist history nor the ghosts seeking revenge on their tormentors’ descendants. “This is a novel, like Octavia Butler’s Kindred, that reminds its readers that as long as people don’t acknowledge how much of the past still shapes the present, it will bring its whips, its hatchets, and fists to make us learn,” says Megan Giddings. (Carolyn)

The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray: In her newest novel PEN Faulkner winner Murray writes about Christina “Ting” Klein, a Filipino-American journalist, who has left New York to escape her impending divorce and traveled to Manila to begin book research. With Procopio “Copo” Gumboc’s authoratarian regime casting a long shadow, Ting slips seamlessly back into upper class Manila life—until a tragedy threatens to completely upend her life. Maaza Mengiste writes, “This novel pulses with that most difficult of urgent truths: running away only leads us back to ourselves but that might be exactly what saves us in the end.” (Carolyn)

Something Wonderful by Jo Lloyd: A man seeks out his father who abandoned him at a festival. Two women hunt butterflies in the runup to World War I. A rural Welsh community catch flashes of their ultra-wealthy, but invisible, neighbors. In award-winning Lloyd’s debut collection, people are looking for ways to better themselves, their lives, and the world around them. The story collection has garnered praise from Hilary Mantel (calling Llyod “a major talent”) and Karen Russell (“Her sentences could rouse the dead (and do, in this excellent book)”). (Carolyn)

Gordo by Jaime Cortez: Visual artist and graphic novelist Cortez sets his debut collection in a migrant workers camp in rual California in the 1970s. Some, but not all of the, stories focus on the title character Gordo, the young (and likely queer) son of documented migrant farm workers, as he comes of age. Kirkus’ starred review says the stories “serve as unvarnished, even fond, testaments to a tough, queer life.” (Carolyn)