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)

The Best of Henry James

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Henry James was one of the most influential English language writers of the modern era. Nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature three times during his life, James was known for providing in his novels and stories profound portraits of human character, of the relations between genders, and of the moral conflicts and myriad cruelties of middle- and upper-class society in America, England, and Europe. No fiction writer of his time wrote with greater insight about the social and psychological existences of women and girls, nor about the power conferred by money and the vulnerability conferred by lacking it.
James’s 45-year writing career spanned the era of professionalization, and James pursued authorship with unsurpassed professionalism. Devoted to writing, he published a voluminous collection of novels, novellas, stories, plays, travel narratives, autobiographies, biographies, and literary criticism, and produced more than 10,000 letters. In highlighting the distinctiveness of James’s prose, characters, and plots, his contemporary, the editor and author William Dean Howells, noted that James was not, “a novelist…after any fashion but his own,” and would be compelled to create his own readership. The fact that his readership in the 20th century was especially full of fellow writers, among them James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth, who all declared his work indispensable to their own, confirms that James introduced something new and lasting into the literary canon.
James has been my own favorite writer ever since I first read The Portrait of a Lady at far-too-young an age to understand it. Still, my instincts told me that I had discovered a unique voice and way of looking at the world, and I kept reading him. As happened for others, James’s writing helped propel me into a career as an English professor, and as a writer myself. Here’s my list of his top 10 works.

1. The Portrait of a Lady

Having spent the last few years rereading most of James in preparation for writing my book, I consider The Portrait of a Lady his most perfect novel. It is the ultimate account of how to choose a partner, or how not to, and the novel remains as relevant today in our era of online dating as it was when it was first published. The story of Isabel Archer is James’s first great treatment of the “international theme,” the depictions of Americans going abroad to discover the world and themselves, which became his trademark. Portraying a young American full of promise, possessing looks, intelligence, and idealism, who is brought to England and invested with a fortune by relatives, the novel explores what happens to a woman who is given the freedom to realize her deepest aspirations.

2. The Golden Bowl 

If The Portrait of a Lady is James’s great account of courtship, The Golden Bowl is his great account of marriage. Set primarily in London, its four principals are a handsome Italian prince, Amerigo, from a family of celebrated ancestry without wealth; an American man of business, Adam Verver, wealthy beyond compare but kinless except for his daughter, Maggie, who has all that money can buy; and Charlotte Stant, an older American friend of Maggie’s from boarding school, extraordinary in every way but financially insecure. The novel portrays two marriages, that of Prince Amerigo and Maggie, and of Adam Verver and Charlotte, and becomes a study of how adultery affects that institution when the Prince and Charlotte rekindle their secret past love affair. James’s favorite topic—wealth versus poverty; rich people buying poor people—is situated within a wider exploration of male versus female natures and the different ways in which the passions and appetites of men and women—familial as well as romantic—support and threaten the social order and the institution of marriage upon which it rests.

3. The Wings of the Dove

Coupling the experience of illness and suffering with the human proclivity for manipulation and deceit, this novel portrays a dying girl, Milly Theale (a heroine based on James’s beloved cousin from childhood, Minny Temple, who succumbed to tuberculosis at age 24), possessed of wealth she cannot enjoy, and her needy friends, the appealing young Englishwoman, Kate Croy, and the handsome young journalist, Merton Densher, who seek to inherit it. Unbeknownst to Milly, Kate and Merton are committed to each other, but prevented from marrying because of their mutual poverty. Ethical factors aside, the solution from Kate’s perspective is obvious: Densher should conceal his devotion to Kate and court Milly, thus ensuring the ailing girl a few happy last months, and a return to Kate with the capital to marry her properly. From this marvelously succinct scheme is woven a narrative of incomparable complexity.

4. The Ambassadors

James once divulged to a regular correspondent, Mrs. Humphry Ward, that of his novels, The Ambassadors  “is, intrinsically, I dare say, the best I have written.” The book is based on emotional advice given by William Dean Howells to a younger man—“live. Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to”—which kindled in James’s mind “the figure of an elderly man who hasn’t ‘lived,’ hasn’t at all, in the sense of passions, impulses, pleasures…He has never really enjoyed—he has lived only for Duty and conscience.” Thus originated the story of Lambert Strether, the reflective middle-aged American enlisted by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Newsome, whom he hopes to marry, to travel to Paris to rescue her son Chad who appears to have lost his way among the dazzling attractions of the French capital. What happens to Mrs. Newsome’s “ambassador” when confronted with “the vast bright Babylon” of French civilization provides the novel’s chief dramatic action.

5. The Bostonians

James’s only long novel set exclusively in America, The Bostonians is steeped in the rhetoric and themes of the Civil War, and concerns the social developments that defined the post-war era of Reconstruction, including the rise of consumerism, advertising, and celebrity; the ongoing tension between democratic values and class stratification in the expanding capitalist nation; and changing gender roles and ideas about sexuality. Given its emphasis on the limitations and even destructiveness of traditional ideas about men and women, The Bostonians can be viewed as a rejoinder to The Portrait of a Lady, which reimagines its predecessor as an anti-marriage novel dramatizing the need for feminist consciousness raising. However one interprets its gender politics, The Bostonians is the first major American novel to take the feminist movement seriously, and to present lesbian sexuality with real sensitivity.

6. The Turn of the Screw

Like many contemporary intellectuals, Henry James and his brother William, the Pragmatist philosopher and psychologist, took ghosts seriously. They were friendly with Frederic W.H. Myers, who headed The Society for Psychical Research, and Henry was recorded in the minutes of a Society meeting in London reading a report on behalf of his absent brother about a female medium who was occasionally overtaken by the spirit of a dead man. Concerns about the boundaries between life and death, and the influence exerted by the dead upon the living are central to the plot of The Turn of the Screw. The question that confronts every reader of the novella is whether the ghosts of Miss Jessel, the governess, and Peter Quint, the gardener, are real or figments of the current governess’s imagination. While some believe in them wholeheartedly and others deem them hallucinations of an hysterical governess, James’s narrative insists on leaving the question open.

7. “The Beast in the Jungle”

The story of John Marcher, a man who devoutly withholds himself from ordinary experience as he awaits the distinguished fate he believes his due, is the most admired and frequently anthologized of James’s stories. Ambition, grandiosity, and the conviction that he is special, different from the multitude, are Marcher’s chief, indeed only, interests. Propelled by the expectation of an event that never happens, Marcher’s final view of himself reveals “the beast” as his own failure to accept what life offered, the love of May Bartram, who herself has lived by loving him for himself. James thought deeply about the ways in which avoiding human connection impoverished existence, and much of that thinking bears fruit in this magnificent story.

8. Washington Square

This superb novella is about an accomplished Manhattan physician, Dr. Austin Sloper, a widower raising his daughter, Catherine, alone. The plot centers on Dr. Sloper’s ambivalence toward Catherine, who is mediocre in every way. It is precisely this mediocrity that make the attentions of Morris Townsend, the handsome young fortune hunter she meets at a party when she is 22, suspect. After it is revealed that Townsend, having gone through his own small fortune, now sponges off his sister, a struggling widow with five children, Dr. Sloper forbids Catherine from seeing her suitor. Thus Catherine, who has fallen quickly in love, is caught between her passion for the handsome young man whose courtship is so unexpected, and her filial love, which are both genuinely powerful.

9. Prefaces to the New York Edition

The 18 prefaces James wrote for the New York Edition of his Collected Works amount to a primer on literary method: the importance of point of view and establishing the fiction’s central consciousness, the attention to narrative design and the building blocks of plot, and the organic integrity of the work, each with its own necessary size and shape. James’s goal was to devise a method and theory of fiction using his vast experience as a writer and applying his considerable critical skills to his own major works. The project was at once distanced, an objective investigation of his best fiction, and intimate, a recollection of his subjective state while writing. Without liking James, without ever having read him, legions of aspiring writers in the 20th and 21st centuries have internalized these legendary methods. This is in no small part because the prefaces present novelistic practice as the most significant of human endeavors.

10. The American Scene

James’s return to the U.S. following a 20-year absence intensified qualms about his native land that had motivated his self-exile. Much of what James writes about his rediscovered country in his famous travelogue is acute. He sees the impact of “creative destruction” everywhere, but finds few compensations for this repudiation of tradition. He hears “much talk—but no conversation.” The art of living is nowhere to be found, a consequence, James asserts, of the prevailing American obsession with profit and money-making. The paradox is how this dominant value makes the country an unusually elastic organism for assimilating people from foreign lands. Equally important is James’s insight that in America being from elsewhere is a fundamental national characteristic. In a country composed like no other of waves upon waves of immigrants, being different from others is the norm.

Bonus Links:
Henry James for Every Day of the Year
Henry James and the Joys of Binge Reading
The Great Late Henry James

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2021 Book Preview

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We’ve just an entered an amazing six-month stretch for book-lovers. The second of half of 2021 brings the first novel from the legendary Gayl Jones in more than 20 years, and the first novel from Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka in nearly 50. How often do we get new work from Louise Erdrich, Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers, Ruth Ozeki, Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Verble, Percival Everett, Joy Williams, Sandra Cisneros, John Edgar Wideman, A.S. Byatt, Rabih Alameddine, Donald Antrim, and Maggie Nelson—all in one six-month period? Never! It doesn’t happen! We’ve got hotly anticipated books from Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Sally Rooney, Venita Blackburn, Omar El Akkad, Tiphanie Yanique, and Claire Vaye Watkins. We’ve got novels and memoirs and stories. There are just so many exciting books headed our way.

We miss books every single time we do this, and as usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in August. Let us know in the comments what you’re looking out for, and look forward to 2022, when more delights awake, on the page, if nowhere else.

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July

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad: In his acclaimed bestselling debut, American War, El Akkad demonstrated his ability to capture complex political events and place them on a personal scale. With his new novel, What Strange Paradise, he has done it again, this time asking questions about the global refugee crisis. It opens with the sinking of a dilapidated ship and bodies washing up on the shores of a small island. A nine-year-old Syrian boy, Amir, survives the wreck and is rescued by a teenage girl. The novel tells the story of their bond. As the publisher says, it’s “beautifully written, unrelentingly dramatic, and profoundly moving.” (Claire)

Night Bitch by Rachel Yoder: The startling cover of this debut first caught my attention, then the premise itself: a stay-at-home mother has reason to believe that she’s turning into a dog. When her husband dismisses her worries, she turns to a book of magic and then a multi-level marketing scheme. Started during Jami Attenberg’s #1000WordsofSummer challenge, it’s been optioned for a film that will star Amy Adams and which Yoder herself will adapt. One way or the other, you’re going to be talking about this book. (Hannah)

Wayward by Dana Spiotta: The author of Eat the Document and Stone Arabia now graces us with a deep-dive into women: Mothers as daughters, their daughters, their daughter’s grandmothers as mothers. Taylor Antrim called it both “affecting” and “Gloriously cool.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee) 

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby: Crosby’s arrival last year with his pedal-to-the-metal rural noir debut Blacktop Wasteland was a sorely needed bright spot in an otherwise miserable pandemic year. In his sophomore novel, Ike Randolph, a Black ex-con, learns that his son has been murdered along with his white husband Derek, and joins forces with Derek’s father, another former criminal with ties to the underworld, to find the killers. (Michael)

Appleseed by Matt Bell: In the past, two brothers planted apple seeds. In the near future, climate change and capitalism destroy orchards and much else. Still farther out, ice blankets us all. In Bell’s 600-page mythic thriller, readers move forward through each era. In the real world, we hope to slow the pace. (Nick M.)

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura: The author of the haunting novel A Separation, returns with a novel of a woman who goes to work as an interpreter at the International Court in the Hague, a place where her work and life and those of her friends and acquaintances intersect in explosive ways. Dana Spiotta calls Intimacies “a haunting, precise, and morally astute novel that reads like a psychological thriller…Katie Kitamura is a wonder.” (Lydia)

Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke: The graphic novel is the ideal format for a book on loneliness. Sometimes only a sole image can conjure the feeling of longing and vulnerability, and other times, you need both words and images to visualize sublime vulnerability. Radtke seamlessly guides readers through the history of loneliness, with striking drawings and thoughtful reflections on the lengths humans have gone to combat or avoid their lone selves. Never has a study on loneliness made me feel less alone. (Kate)

The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam: He was a boy, she was a girl; she’s a brilliant coder and he gets the credit. In Anam’s newest novel, Asha Ray is a generational coding talent who runs into—and quickly marries—her high school crush. Together they enter the rabid startup world with an idea: what if tech rituals replaced religion? But startup bro-culture doesn’t leave much room for Asha, and if tech innovators get to be gods, where does that leave everyone else? Anam’s own startup experiences underpin the book’s sharp and knowing satire, but at its core The Startup Wife is about much more than skewering our modern silicon messiahs. (Kaulie)

Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung: In this touching and delicate debut, Fung approaches the big political event—the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997—at an intimate and personal level. Before the Handover, the family of the protagonist immigrate to Vancouver like many other Hong Kongers back then. However, her father immigrates only nominally. In real life, he remains in Hong Kong to make money. The novel starts with his unexpected death that leaves the young protagonist with many unresolved questions. This is a fascinating epic of a Chinese-Canadian family, heartbreaking, daring, and relieving. (Jianan Qian) 

The Second Season by Emily Adrian: Four years ago, in an essay published right here at The Millions, I asked why there hasn’t been a Great American Basketball Novel yet. Well, there is now: The Second Season, by Adrian. And no less an expert than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar agrees, calling it “A riveting, insightful, and touching story.” The Second Season tells the story of basketball announcer Ruth Devon—loosely based on Doris Burke, as most NBA fans will recognize—as she attempts to become the first female NBA announcer on national television, while, like so many women, juggling the competing demands of maternal and professional identities. Adrian writes with a knowledge and passion for the game, but fandom is not a prerequisite for falling in love with this brilliant, warm, and funny book. (Adam Price)

The Beginners by Anne Serre (translated by Mark Hutchinson): French author Serre has stated that the writer’s only responsibility is to seduce: “You have to build a trap, a wonderful trap, that the reader is only too happy to fall into.” It’s a seduction she’s performed in the tight, fabulist tales of her two previous books translated into English—The Fool and The Governesses. And now, in her third, The Beginners, she tells a tale of a literal seduction, where Anna, an art critic, who 20 years into a stable romantic partnership experiences a coup de foudre that she must give herself over to. (Anne)

A Shock by Keith Ridgway: It’s been almost a decade since Irish writer Ridgway produced his cult crime novel Hawthorn & Child. He has finally given his fans A Shock, a string of loosely linked stories set in neighboring London houses occupied by druggy characters who appear, disappear, then reappear. They shout at rats. They hide inside walls and in attics. They realize that the sound of a washing machine actually improves a Charles Mingus recording. Here’s how Ridgway writes: “His skin was a leathery peel. A wet dry thing. He had been scraped and reapplied to himself and now he was dying in the street like an ant on a fire.” Hell, yes. (Bill)

We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin: Heidi Julavits, author of The Folded Clock, puts it well when she says Ohlin’s work is, “spoken of in the same reverent breath as Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams.” This is a new collection from the award-winning author of Dual Citizens. The stories are about people who test boundaries, like Vanessa, who comes home from a year away volunteering to find a childhood friend in her father’s bed, or Amanda, who drives upstate to rescue a cousin from a cult only to find an alluring situation. Each story is, “diamond-sharp,” says the publisher, “sparkling with pain, humor, and beauty.” (Claire)

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota was one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists of the Decade in 2013 and his The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Dylan Thomas Prize. His new novel, partially inspired by his family’s history, jumps between 1929 and 1999 but begins with a new bride, Mehar, in Punjab in 1929, as she tries to learn about her husband and becomes wrapped up in secrets that will reverberate through the decades. Kamila Shamsie calls the novel “A gorgeous, gripping read.” (Lydia)

Virtue by Hermione Hoby: Hoby’s new novel, after Neon in Daylight, follows a young man named Luca as he goes to New York for an internship at a magazine and is pulled both into the dreamy summer orbit of a wealthy white couple, and into a conversation about race, injustice, and privilege that has profoundly different consequences for Luca than it does for his fellow intern, a Black woman named Zara. Jia Tolentino says of Hoby, “with bewitching precision, she captures the ominous beauty and soft underbelly of our protest summers. The result is both a sumptuous portrait of all-consuming attraction and a compassionate indictment of shallow social conscience. I loved this novel, and sank deep into its radiance and rot.” (Lydia)

Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: In her latest novel, bestselling author Beverly-Whittemore has written a Secret History-esque tale of suspense about a group of childhood friends and the secret that haunts their adulthood. The book’s got all the ingredients for the perfect summer read: short breathless chapters; a sinister cult in the wilds of Maine; and beautiful, sharp prose. In its starred review, Kirkus calls it: “A compelling study of power, sociopathy, and the possibilities of survival.” (Edan)

Give My Love to the Savages by Chris Stuck: A debut collection of short stories linked by the experience of Black men from different walks of life, in places across the United States, as they find themselves on the receiving end of a racist slur.  Victor LaValle says of the collection “You’re going to laugh, you’re going to gasp, you’re going to wonder if you’re allowed to enjoy this book and then you’re going to be laughing all over again. This is Black satire with bite, like Zora Neale Hurston used to do, with a smile and a sharp elbow. A touch of Paul Beatty, a dose of Dolemite, and a serving of Dorothy Parker, too. Give My Love to the Savage sannounces Chris Stuck as a fearless talent, a debut that’ll make your sides and your heart hurt.” (Lydia)

Embassy Wife by Katie Crouch: This novel portrays and skewers the modern ex-pat life in this tableau of Fulbrighters and Diplomats—not all of them are what they claim to be—in Namibia. Natalie Baszile says of the novel, “Keenly observed and expertly crafted, Katie Crouch’s Embassy Wife is a wickedly irresistible novel.” (Lydia)

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam: Arudpragasam’s second novel, after the critically acclaimed The Story of a Brief Marriage, follows a man named Krishan as he travels from Colombo to the northern part of Sri Lanka when he learns of the sudden death of his grandmother’s caretaker. The journey becomes, among other things, a meditation on the 30-year civil war. The Financial Times raved, “It can take just two novels to establish a writer as one of the most individual minds of their generation. With his new novel, a revelatory exploration of the aftermath of war, Arudpragasam cements his reputation. It calls to mind the work of W.G. Sebald. . . . [An] extraordinary and often illuminating novel.” (Lydia)

A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan: A work of satirical, psychedelic horror that follows two service workers obsessed with an influencer type as they travel to the Hamptons and insinuate themselves into her world with unexpected results.  Kristen Arnett raved “Morgan has created a fabulous monster here, legitimately Frankensteined herself a wicked, unflinching, dynamite novel out of razor-sharp dialogue, toxic social media culture, and the nonsense notion that the self is just another brand to be endlessly plumbed for content. Wildly hilarious and absolutely terrifying, A Touch of Jen is truly a touch of genius. I loved every minute of it.” (Lydia)

August

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)

Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim: Henrik Blatand is alienated from his identity as a Japanese man, as he is the adoptive son of Danish parents. After his girlfriend, Fumiko, dies by suicide, this darkly comic novel follows Henrik following Fumiko’s body to its dissection by a medical student. Publishers Weekly called this debut “splendid.” (Marie)

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: Ruffin’s first novel, We Cast a Shadow, was a powerful dystopian satire that featured a Black lawyer’s obsessional quest to obtain a “demelanization” procedure for his biracial son. In an interview, Ruffin described how his legal training (he worked in corporate law and then for the Social Security Administration), afforded him a unique view of society, an “X-ray that allows us to see behind walls, the studs and pillars that make up the structure of a house.” Here, Ruffin turns his penetrating gaze on his hometown, the Big Easy, in a collection Publishers Weekly calls “a rich tour of hardscrabble New Orleans.” (Matt)

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)

Several People are Typing by Calvin Kasulke: Rife with office humor, Internet speak, and sharp criticisms of capitalism, Kasulke’s extremely online debut novel is composed entirely of Slack messages. Employed by a New York-based PR firm, mid-level employee Gerald works from home—as his consciousness trolls the company’s Slack channels. As work emergencies emerge and romances blossom, Gerald begins to question his work-life situation and attempts to find his body. Kasulke’s satirical novel has garnered praise from the likes of Carmen Maria Machado (“an absurd, hilarious romp”); Hilary Leichter (“a Greek chorus of modern strife”); and Daniel Lavery (“a winsome, light-footed book with deceptive staying power”). (Carolyn)

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)

Skinship by Yoon Choi: A constellation of Korean American families populates this debut collection, praised by Chang-rae Lee as “immediately dazzling and impressive, and yet the closer and deeper you look, the more you appreciate the sheer countless brilliance.” Roxane Gay says, “These stories of Korean American families are delicately plotted, subtle and immensely pleasurable to read.” (Marie)

In the Country of Others by Leïla Slimani: Slimani is both a novelist and a diplomat in the government of Emanuel Macron, and those seemingly divergent vocations have more in common than might be first assumed. Both require a genius for empathy, an ability to translate experiences, and and understanding of what’s important to leave in and what’s crucial to leave out. Her latest book In the Country of Others, first in a planned trilogy, recounts the lives of French Mathilde, married to a Moroccan solider stationed in France during the Second World War. Having returned to his home country, Mathilde negotiates the difficulty of literally being “in the country of others” at a moment of post-colonial awakening in North Africa. Asking what it means to exist between cultures, and how we negotiate the ever-shifting complexities of privilege and identity, the book acknowledges that such questions are as far from abstract as imaginable, and as intimate as the marriage bed, for “How can you be two things at once? Are you obliged to choose one side over the other?” (Ed)

American Estrangement by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Essayist, playwright, and short story writer Sayrafiezadeh won accolades for his visceral memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free, about his experience growing up in Pittsburgh the son of an Iranian father and a Jewish mother who were committed members of the Socialist Workers Party. The consummate outsider, Sayrafiezadeh examines our nation’s sins with a particularly clear eye, and his latest collection of short stories, American Estrangement, is no exception. Gathering stories from The New Yorker and The Paris Review, Sayrafiezadeh provides a portrait of a country racked by unemployment, drug addiction, and a sense of despair, earning him comparisons to George Saunders and Denis Johnson. In an interview with The New Yorker, Sayrafiezadeh explained that “One of the questions I wanted to pose…was how can we ‘know’ ourselves if we’re not equipped with the necessary vocabulary?” American Estrangement supplies some of that vocabulary. (Ed)

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)

Image Control by Patrick Nathan: Novelist Nathan (Some Hell) makes his nonfiction debut with this investigation of how fascism spreads through images, in particular the rapid-fire memes and photographs that come to us via social media, fragmenting our attention and numbing our response. With its mix of personal anecdote and political critique, the book has been compared in early reviews to Susan Sontag’s nonfiction, but to me it sounds like a cousin to George Trow’s prescient Within the Context of No Context, about the alienating effects of television and mass media. (Hannah)

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)

Silent Winds, Dry Seas by Vinod Busjeet: Mauritius-born Busjeet spent 29 years working in economic development, finance, and diplomacy before publishing his debut novel, Silent Winds, Dry Seas, which, coincidentally, traces the spilling, connected stories of a family as told by Vishnu Bhushan following his return to the island after decades away. A coming-of-age story, a time-spanning narrative web, a compelling introduction to Mauritius and the breakthrough novel of a confident and original writer, Silent Winds “dazzles” (Publishers Weekly) as it surveys the emotional depths just off the Mauritian shore. (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)

Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir by Kat Chow: Founding member of NPR’s Code Switch, Chow is unusually fixated and worried over her parents dying, so much so that her mother made a joke about it. Then her mother dies unexpectedly, devastating the family. Ocean Vuong calls this memoir “a courageous act of excavation and salvage.” (Marie)

Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy: Levy’s debut novel is a short, powerful exploration of family written as an address from a woman to her brother, a boy from Thailand who was adopted by a white family from suburban California when he was three years old. Rachel Khong wrote of the novel, “This unsparing and absorbing family portrait broke my heart and remade it a hundred times over. In prose that is distilled, astute, and precise, Immediate Family covers the territory of life that words are often insufficient for, those challenges that are at once isolating and universal—waiting, the imperfect love that binds a family, what you choose and what is chosen for you.” (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)

Leave Society by Tao Lin: In Lin’s newest novel, novelist Li travels back and forth between New York City and Taipei. As the years pass, Li worries over his parents’ health, takes psychedelics, writes autofiction, and contemplates the universe. “Leave Society is a warm, funny, hearteningly nonconformist book that changed the way I think about natural health, wellbeing, and the great mystery,” says Melissa Broder. (Carolyn)

September

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)

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova: Fantasy, magical realism, family: When Orquídea Divina, the matriarch of an extended family, tells them to come home and collect their inheritance, they hope for answers about the strange magic and deep secrets Orquídea holds—and instead see her transformed, leaving only more questions behind. Years later, the family—some of whom now have magic of their own—are on the run from a man hunting them down and must trace Orquídea’s roots back to her native Ecuador, where everything started. Publishers Weekly calls Córdova’s first adult novel “radiant,” “thrillerlike,” and “inspired.” (Kaulie)

The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish: In this follow-up to the smash debut Preparation for the Next Life, a 15-year-old boy becomes his mother’s caretaker when she’s diagnosed with ALS. Then his estranged father comes back into their lives. In Lish’s story of mothers and sons, perhaps the father must be destroyed in order for the boy to become a man. (Nick M.)

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.)

The Trees by Percival Everett: Local law enforcement won’t help a pair of detectives solve a string of murders, which is to be expected. Those detectives finding a second body—a man who resembles Emmett Till—at each crime scene? Not so much. When similar murders occur across the country, what follows is a provocative page-turner focused on racialized police violence. (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)

Civilizations by Laurent Binet (translated by Sam Taylor): Binet’s fictions explore and exploit cracks in history. His bestselling first novel, HHhH, fictionalized the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official, and his more recent The Seventh Function of Language made a thriller out of literary critic Roland Barthes’s death. In Binet’s latest, Civilizations, he spins a counterfactual history of civilization where the Vikings discovered the Americas, Christopher Columbus and his men were captured upon their arrival, and the last Incan emperor repurposes Columbus’s fleet to sail to Europe, divide and conquer (using Machiavelli’s The Prince as his guide). (Anne)

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)

Out of the Ruins: The Apocalyptic Anthology edited by Preston Grassman: Now here’s an idea whose time has come: an anthology from top writers who share a fascination with what worlds look like—and how humans change—after they’ve gone through an apocalyptic crisis. Among the contributors are The Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel, the British fantasy writer China Mieville, Clive Barker, Samuel R. Delaney, Carmen Maria Machado, and many more. This mix of new and classic stories asks questions that need to be asked in moments like the one we’re living through now. What makes us human? And who will we be when we come out of the ruins? (Bill)

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor: The newest novel by McGregor—who has thrice been longlisted for the Booker Prize—takes place in the aftermath of an Antarctic expedition gone terribly wrong. When veteran technician Robert Wright suffers a life shattering accident, his life—and how he approaches and interacts with the world—is changed forever. A starred review from Publishers Weekly calls the novel “stunning” and a “gorgeous work [that] leaves an indelible mark.” (Carolyn)

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)

The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros: With the greater part of the planet devastated by a nuclear disaster, a mother and son struggle to survive in a remote Welsh village. Despite their desolate existence, the pair soon learn that in an emptied land there is still plenty of room for secrets and plenty of time for grace. (Il’ja)

The Actual Star by Monica Byrne: Reincarnation, a Belizean cave, 2000 years of connected narrative: mix them together and you have The Actual Star, an indescribable “epic saga of three reincarnated souls” from the author of The Girl in the Road. As it interweaves three stories, separated by millennia, the novel follows twin Mayans who become royalty, a young American woman on a trip abroad, and a group of futuristic people trying to survive after massive climate change. Already drawing comparisons to Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, The Actual Star is for those who love complexities and questions that transcend single lives. (Kaulie)

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)

An Ideal Presence by Eduardo Berti (translated by Daniel Levin Becker): The Argentinian novelist Berti wrote this after a “medico-literary residency” at a palliative care facility, and the first offering from the new press Fern Books is a highly fictionalized account of the myriad stories of the workers who make this vital department of human life run. Carmen Maria Machado says of the book, “An Ideal Presence is about death, yes, but more than that, it’s a meditation on the complicated business of living. A funny, tender book.” (Lydia)

Crazy Sorrow by Vince Passaro: Nearly 20 years after his debut novel, Violence, Nudity, Adult Content, Passaro returns with a novel about the tumults of a relationship that spans four decades in the ever-changing New York City. (Lydia)

No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull: Author of The Lesson, which was shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Turnbull returns with the first in a fantasy saga, one that involves police brutality, werewolves, and other monstrous things. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly lauds, “The expert combination of immersive prose, strong characters, sharp social commentary, and well-woven speculative elements” that make “for an unforgettable experience.” (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)

Talk to Me by T.C. Boyle: What if we could actually talk to the animals? What would they have to say? These are the questions at the heart of Boyle’s tale of a latter-day Dr. Doolittle, an animal behaviorist named Guy Schermerhorn, who teaches a chimp to speak in sign language. This attracts a young female student to his lab, setting off an interspecies love triangle that, since this is T.C. Boyle we’re talking about, promises to be as unsettling as it is hilarious. (Michael)

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)

In the Shadow of the Yalı by Suat Derviş (translated by Maureen Freely): Dervis (1905-1972) is a well-known Turkish author, feminist, and socialist who was placed under house arrest for her political beliefs and later exiled from Turkey for a decade. Described by Selim İleri as “a novel that examines love from a Marxist perspective,” In the Shadow of the Yalı takes place when Turkey is transitioning from the Ottoman Empire to the new Republic. The story follows Celile, who finds herself in an unexpected and passionate love affair. Ilana Masad declares that Derviş’s English-language debut “is a rare gem—a romantic character study, a social novel, and a feminist critique on patriarchy and capitalism.” (Zoë)

October

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)

The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber: Winner of the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize, Bajaber’s debut novel—a fabulist bildungsroman—follows a Hadrami girl who takes to the sea after her fisherman father goes missing. The magical novel has already garnered praise from Shailja Patel (“The House of Rust is as labyrinthine, magical and multilayered as Mombasa itself”) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (“…Bajaber is a radiant addition to the constellations of transcultural literature”), among others. (Carolyn)

Fight Night by 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)

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout: William has remained close enough with his ex-wife Lucy that, after years of separation, she’s agreed to help him investigate a family secret. Together, they uncover past infidelity and hidden branches of his family tree. How well do any of us know one another; how can we share with others what we don’t know ourselves? (Nick M.)

Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique: How do you determine who you’re meant to be with? How do you know if a relationship is meant to last? Award-winning novelist Yanique considers these questions in Monster in the Middle. Matthew Salesses declares, “Tiphanie Yanique is one of our very best writers. This book is another marvel.” The novel centralizes the relationship of Fly and Stela and their emotional inheritance, and it is set in the United States, Ghana, and Virgin Islands across decades. Natasha Trethewey calls the novel “a compelling exploration of how we become who we are and how we manage to find our way to love. In her lyrical prose, the myriad possibilities of being—the accidents of birth, of sex, of race and geography, the choices we make, our compulsions—coalesce into something that feels, gloriously, like destiny.” (Zoë)

The Every by Dave Eggers: Author, editor, and publisher Eggers has written a sequel to his bestselling novel The Circle, this time looking at the outsized power of tech monopolies. It’s about what happens when The Circle, the world’s largest social media company, merges with the most dominant e-commerce site to become The Every. The novel follows two employees of The Every who try to dismantle the company from the inside. In order to do some of his own dismantling, Eggers has MacGyvered a unique distribution strategy so that pub-date hardcover copies of his book will be exclusively available through independent booksellers; a paperback version will be rolled out six weeks later on a variety of e-commerce platforms (including Amazon). (Hannah)

Silverview by John le Carré: Devotees of le Carré’s work will likely not be surprised that, despite his passing last December, he’s still producing novels. Billed as “an encounter between innocence and experience and between public duty and private morals,” this posthumous release gives another—final?—glimpse into the secrets we all wish could stay that way, delivered by the premier diagnostician of the predicament brought on by modernity. (Il’ja)

The Jealousy Man by Jo Nesbø (translated by Robert Ferguson): So, when the “king of all crime writers” (Daily Express) has sold 45 million books in 50 languages, it’s probably time to put out a short story collection. And Nesbø has: 560 pages of chills inflicted by assortment of creeps, including a peeping tom, an assassin, a father out for post-apocalyptic vengeance, and a detective with a score to settle. Not for the faint of heart. (Il’ja)

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)

Between Certain Death and Possible Future, edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: The AIDS crisis and its trauma still looms large, a shadow over generations of queer people, but we often talk about those who came of age before and those who came later. Here, in a collection of 36 personal essays, the focus is on the generation in the middle—those who grew up during the epidemic and fully internalized its trauma early in their lives and as part of their identities. Between Certain Death and Possible Future contains stories of chosen families, lost communities, conventional wisdom rejected, and new wisdom shared; Dean Spade calls it “a must read for this moment.” (Kaulie)

One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival by Donald Antrim: Antrim, a brilliant novelist, short story writer, and memoirist, now explores suicide and names it as an illness in its own right in his new book, a work of memoir. The book begins with an account and excavation of a terrifying day in 2006 when Antrim found himself in crisis on the roof of a building, and recounts the years of struggle that followed as he fought for his life. A work of solace for the many people who have encountered this fear or lived with its aftermath. (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. Dalloway and 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)

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (translated by Margaret Jull Costa): First published in Portugal in 1966, this novel is translated into English from the first time by Costa with an introduction by Kate Zambreno, who calls it “a compact, merciless tragedy.” In it, three generations of women live in thrall to the choices and thoughtlessness of men, and the central character mourns a husband who lived as a kind of messianic figure, until she learns a secret that throws all of his past acts into a new, awful light. (Lydia)

The Loneliest Americans by Jay Caspian Kang: New York Times Magazine writer-at-large, Vice News correspondent, and author of the novel The Dead Do Not Improve, interrogates identity and what it means to become, and to feel, “American.” (Marie)

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble: A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist for Maud’s Line takes place in the 1920s at Glendale Park Zoo, a now-defunct but once famous zoo in Nashville, where a daredevil horse-diver—a Cherokee woman—forges a friendship with a the scion of a Black landowning family and a zookeeper haunted by memories of World War I, while around them in segregated Nashville, apparitions and other frightening things swirl. (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)

A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar: In the latest from the author of Immigrant, Montana, a professor and writer named Satya goes to a well-known artist’s retreat, where he finds the outside world increasingly difficult to ignore. A certain rage-filled president keeps tweeting, a virus is spreading across the globe, and seemingly every day brings another attention-grabbing news story. As time passes and the distractions don’t let up, Satya begins to synthesize these stories into a new novel, a contemporary story about the lies we tell ourselves and other people. (Thom)

Spring and Autumn Annals by Diane DiPrima: A work of memoir and elegy by one of the great, under-recognized women Beats, a year after her death. Begun as letters to a friend, the dancer Freddie Herko, who died by suicide, the work is both a meditation on friendship and an account of a Brooklyn childhood that turned into a Village adulthood in the thick of a pivotal cultural moment. Chris Kraus says of the book: “Diane di Prima is one of the greatest writers of her generation, and this book offers a window into its lives.” (Lydia)

Still Life by Sarah Winman: Words you don’t expect to see in a publisher’s book description: “Big-hearted story of people brought together by the ghost of E.M. Forster.” Also file under: I want to read more, please. Still Life may not have actual ghosts, but Forster’s influence certainly shows in this, the fourth novel from Winman, author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin Man. A story of intergenerational friendship, love, and art, Still Life begins in 1944 in a Tuscan wine cellar, where a young soldier spends a life-changing evening talking to Evelyn, a much older art connoisseur (and accused spy) with memories of Forster and her own room with a view. (Kaulie)

November

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich:Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Erdrich’s new book follows Tookie, a formerly incarcerated Ojibwe woman who takes a job in a Minneapolis bookstore after serving an absurdly long sentence. When one of the bookstore’s best customers dies, her ghost returns to the store to haunt Tookie. The ghost’s appearance leads Tookie and a fellow bookseller to a shocking personal discovery of historical consequence. Taking place over the course of a year, from All Soul’s Day 2019 to All Soul’s Day 2020, Erdrich confronts a year of pandemic and protest. (Hannah)

Look for Me and I’ll be Gone by John Edgar Wideman: For more than half a century, two-time PEN Award-winning novelist and short story author Wideman has very much been a writer’s writer. His magisterial The Homewood Trilogy made the Black neighborhood of his Pittsburgh youth as mythic as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and if there were any literary justice in the United States, Wideman would be as widely known as the Nobel laureate. Arguably the last of the great modernist writers, Wideman combines stream of consciousness and the American vernacular in a style that recalls Joyce and Baldwin, and is yet entirely his own. His sixth collection of short stories, Look for Me and I’ll be Gone, gathering previously published material from The New Yorker, among other literary journals and magazines, returns to Wideman’s familiar themes of race and identity, punishment and injustice, Pittsburgh and Blackness. As Wideman said in an interview from Callaloo in 1989, “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” (Ed)

Medusa’s Ankles by A.S. Byatt: Byatt demonstrated her long-form virtuosity in the wide ranging and beguiling Possession, and here shows her versatility in this collection of short stories. David Mitchell admires the range of these stories, both in theme and style, and Byatt’s “portraitist’s eye.” (Marie)

The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies: Davies, author of The Fortunes and A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, has joined an illustrious line of writers, from Charles Baxter to Edwidge Danticat, in penning an “art of” book, my favorite craft books series, published by Graywolf Press. Davies sheds light on an often invisible part of writing—rewriting—by showing drafts of his own work as well as early drafts of Carmen Maria Machado and Flannery O’Connor, among others. He also uses the topic of revision to consider how it is not only the work that changes, but the writer, too. (Edan)

The Perishing by Natashia Deón: Critically acclaimed writer Deón returns with The Perishing, a speculative and historical novel recommended for readers who love Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin. Deón’s second novel focuses on Lou, who finds herself in Los Angeles in the 1930s without any recollection of how she arrived, becomes the first Black journalist at The Los Angeles Times, and experiences flashbacks of various time periods. As Lou starts to believe she’s immortal and that she has arrived with an important and specific purpose, threats to her safety arise. Publishers Weekly and Library Journal have highlighted The Perishing as a fall must-read. (Zoë)

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu: As a biracial Chinese-American woman, Willa Chen has drifted through high school and college, struggling to come to some kind of peace with herself. But when she begins working as a nanny for the Adriens, a wealthy white New York City family, she is confronted with all of the things she never had. After moving in with the Adriens, Willa must come to terms with her complicated childhood and finally begin to define her adult life. As Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me says: “Win Me Something is an observant, contemplative story about the complex reality of growing up with a mixed identity in two starkly different mixed families. Kyle Lucia Wu deftly weaves back and forth between Willa’s teenaged years and her adult life to explore loneliness, uncertainty, and a singular, persistent question―where do I truly belong?” (Adam Price)

White on White by Ayşegül Savaş: “Beauty avoids our grasp because it’s made of the same, ephemeral texture as imagination,” the Paris-based Turkish writer Savaş writes in her essay, “On Invisible Beauty,” published in our very own pages. Beauty and art are subjects Savaş returns to in her second novel, White on White. When, by virtue of proximity, a student of Gothic nudes becomes a companion and repository of stories told by her artist landlord, she becomes a student not only of art but of life. Lauren Groff compares White on White’s elegance to “an opaque sheet of ice that belies the swift and turbulent waters beneath. (Anne K. Yoder)

New York, My Village by Uwem Akpan: In Akpan’s debut novel (following Say You’re One of Them, his bestselling, critically-acclaimed collection), Nigerian editor Ekong Udousoro, who is working on a collection about the Biafran War, relocates to New York City after receiving a publishing fellowship—only to discover the dark side of an industry that smiles in his face while disparaging his home, race, and culture. Elif Batuman writes: “Unforgettable characters, deeply realistic and ‘relatable’ interpersonal conflicts, a contagious love of life, fresh insights into the crazy-making properties of racist ideology: New York, My Village has it all.” (Carolyn)

Sacred City by Theodore C. Van Alst: A follow-up to Van Alst’s debut, Sacred Smokes, the story tracks a young man guided by an ancestral band only he (and the reader) can see, leading us on a path toward the inevitable conclusion that “Chicago was, is, and always will be Indian Country.” (Il’ja)

Chasing Homer by László Krasznahorkai (translated by John Batki, musical performances by Szilveszter Miklós, illustrated by Max Neumann): Brief (only 96 pages), collaborative, and propulsive—Chasing Homer is a chase story the likes of which you’ve not yet experienced in a book. The story: a being with no past, for whom only the present moment exists, blends into every terrain in a desperate attempt to elude the hunt and outrun death. It’ll be weird but it’ll be good. (Il’ja)

The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin: As someone whose vade mecum is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, I’m especially excited for Seçkin’s debut novel, in which a young woman analyzes her illness according to the four humors theory. (My problem: excess of phlegm.) Taking place over a summer in Istanbul, where the woman has travelled to care for her ailing grandmother, the novel balances the protagonist’s humor-gazing with stories of her family’s and Turkey’s history. The premise faintly echoes two other recent medico-literary works of quackery and experimental treatment: Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. (Matt)

The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy: A novel that explores the varied “intersection(s) of technology and the human” and the limits, or lack thereof, of imagination. McCarthy stirs together the art of raising 12 children, counting sheep, and the laws of motion to paint a compelling portrait of the drives that inhabit and inhibit us. A wild ride. (Il’ja)

Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen: Nowadays many people write or produce videos about food and culture, but Mayukh Sen is arguably the first one who makes you feel the American kitchen sizzling with wonder. Taste Makers carefully selects seven extraordinarily courageous, brilliant, and loving immigrant women who dedicate their lives to what Americans take for granted in their diet today. James Beard Award-winning writer Sen’s impeccable research accurately restores the lives of these women; his lively prose style matches the vivacity of his heroines. More importantly, he both entertains and challenges our previous mental association of women and food. After reading this group biography, perhaps what we see on our mundane plate is no longer the same as before. (Jianan)

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park: Contradictions abound in Sang Young Park’s English-language debut, and that’s exactly how it should be. The Seoul inhabited by the book’s hero, Young, is filled with joy, sadness, anxiety, heartbreak, languor, and intensity—sometimes all in one chapter. As Young grows, yearns, and makes messy mistakes, readers will find themselves rooting for him all the way until the brilliant end. (Kate)

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor: Widely known—and loved, and awarded—for her genre-bending, Africanfuturist novels and stories (see: Who Fears Death, Lagoon), Okorafor is back with a vivid and unpredictable rush of a new novel. Anwuli Okwudili—or AO, for Artificial Organism—is a woman who relies on her many body augmentations to live. But when someone gets hurt, she’s forced to go on the run, heading into and across the deserts of Northern Nigeria with a Fulani herdsman, DNA, alongside her and the world watching the “saga of the wicked woman and the mad man” unfold in real time. (Kaulie)

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett: A new collection of personal essays from the beloved Patchett, including a meditation on a surprising and beautiful bond formed with Tom Hanks’s assistant, a woman named Sooki, which is basically indescribable outside of the essay that describes it, but which you can read here at Harper’s. (Lydia)

Blue-Skinned Gods by SJ Sindu: Roxane Gay writes that Blue-Skinned Gods, the second novel from Sindu, is “consummate storytelling,” “heart breaking and exhilarating”; others have called it stunning, profound, a marvel. In Tamil Nadu, India, a young boy named Kalki is born with impossibly blue skin. He is believed to be—and is worshipped as—Vishnu reincarnated, but he begins to have his doubts. As his relationships with his community and family begin to crumble, Kalki lands in New York City, seeking refuge in the city’s underground rock scene as he works to discover exactly who—and what—he is. (Kaulie)

God of Mercy by Okezie Nwọka: A debut novel set in an Igbo village where the forces of colonialism have not found root now finds itself at odds with its neighboring colonized villages, with dire consequences for its heroine Iljeoma, a girl who can fly. Maisy Card calls the novel “a profound exploration of religion, faith, and compassion from a gifted storyteller. Okezie Nwọka creates a richly imagined postcolonial landscape that is at once otherworldly, tragically human, and completely unforgettable.” (Lydia)

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King: King follows five critically acclaimed novels, most recently Euphoria and Writers and Lovers, with her first collection of short stories. Ann Patchett raved that the new offering “moved me, inspired me, thrilled me. It filled up ever chamber of my heart. I loved this book.” (Lydia)

Pity the Beast by Robin McLean: Following her debut collection Reptile House, this novel of the western U.S. jumps back and forth in time from prehistory to far in the future, focusing its eye on the time in between, during which a woman named Ginny has just cheated on her husband. A new feminist western about which J.M. Coetzee raved, “Not since Faulkner have I read American prose so bristling with life and particularity.” (Lydia)

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart: In what may be the season’s first explicitly Covid-19 novel, funny-sad author Shteyngart chronicles eight friends, including a Russian-born novelist and his wife, their child obsessed with K-pop, a Korean American app developer, and various other artistes isolated upstate in March of 2020 for a Boccaccian idyll in which they are safe from a deadly virus but not from themselves, their hungers, and their pasts. Looking forward to the hyper-observant author’s take in what Salman Rushdie pegs it as “A powerful fable of our broken time.” (Marie)

Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak: On Cyprus, a Greek Christian boy and a Turkish Muslim girl share a secret courtship. One day, war changes everything. Years later, curious about her family history, a London girl returns to the island where her parents met, where she’s never been. What does she find? (Nick M.)

December

I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez: As the title implies, all the protagonists in this story collection struggle with midnight cravings to some extent. A college graduate attends the bachelor party of a high school crush and has the confusing desire rekindled; a cat-sitter accidentally troubles his friend with the excessive grease of French fries and his undue longing for connection. Though those crucial, intimate moments of self-discovery, the physical sense of hunger gains a metaphorical weight as the constant human yearning for where we can call a home. (Jianan)

Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel: Patel follows up his collection If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi with a novel of mother-son and other forms of love and rediscovery set against the backdrop of ’90s R&B. Akash leaves Los Angeles for Illinois, where his widowed mother, Renu, is selling the family home. As they pack up, both confront the errors and regrets of the past. Susie Yang says of the novel ,“Once in a while there comes a book that reminds us of why we read: to feel, to question, to grow…The emotional truth of this indelibly portrayed family and their messy lives will leave you weeping and shattered.” (Lydia)

The Women I Love by Francesco Pacifico (translated by Elizabeth Harris): Pacifico composed a series of idiosyncratic lockdown dispatches from Rome for n+1 in which he mused on his father’s hip replacement and wrote a tongue-in-cheek breakup letter to his writing career. Not so fast, as he has an exuberant new work out in English. Pacifico’s previous novel to be translated, Class, was a bright-young-things tale about Italian ex-pats in New York City. His latest, The Women I Love, is set in Italy and features a middle-aged writer anatomizing the women—lovers, colleagues, relatives—who enrich and complicate his life. (Matt)

The Millions Top Ten: June 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 June.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
6 months

2.
2.

Klara and the Sun
4 months

3.
3.

Fake Accounts
5 months

4.
4.

The Copenhagen Trilogy
4 months

5.
5.

No One Is Talking About This
6 months

6.
6.

Detransition, Baby

6 months

7.
7.

Outlawed
3 months

8.


The Great Mistake
1 month

9.
9.

Women and Other Monsters
2 months

10.
8.

Subdivision
2 months

Johnathan Lee’s The Great Mistake appears on this month’s list. Published in the middle of June, it should be familiar to Millions readers who caught its mention in our First-Half 2021 Book Preview. At the time, Il’ja Rákoš noted that Lee’s novel had drawn early comparisons to both Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and John Williams’s Stoner. That bodes well, since those two novels are in our site’s Hall of Fame. Five more write-ups like this, and Lee’s will join them.

Elsewhere on this month’s list, May’s top seven remain June’s. May’s eighth book became June’s tenth. Even the near misses held steady. All this points to one place: Millions readers are ready for that Second-Half Preview to drop.

Well, stay tuned this week…

This month’s near misses included: The House on Vesper Sands, The Committed, Vernon Subutex, Selected Stories, 1968-1994, and Whereabouts. See Also: Last month’s list.