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

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella is the only Black woman at her publishing company until another Black woman is hired and quickly becomes a favorite in the office–just as Nella starts receiving threatening notes at work. Attica Locke raves, “Zakiya Dalila Harris has pulled back the curtain on the publishing industry, but in doing so, she has also perfectly captured a social dynamic that exists in job cultures as varied as tech, finance, academia, or hell, even retail and fast food. Oh, beware of the “OBGs”—Other Black Girls—y’all. As we should all be aware of the psychic cost to Black women of making ourselves palatable to institutions that use our cultural cache for their own ends while disregarding any part of our hearts and minds that they either can’t or won’t understand.” (Lydia)
Bewilderness by Karen Tucker: The stress of Covid-19 has, according to the CDC, escalated opioid usage, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to drive OD fatalities, which are 10% higher than 12 months ago. In her debut novel, Bewilderness, Karen Tucker puts a human face on this ongoing public health catastrophe, as she tells the story of Irene and Luce, pill-addicts and best friends. More than merely evoking the desperation of opioid abuse, Bewilderness provides a funny and touching story of female friendship—as Rufi Thorpe says, “Karen Tucker has the chaotic truth-telling energy of a sage and a lack of sentimentality that would give Hunter S. Thompson stomach cramps. This is the novel the opiate epidemic needs.” (Adam Price)

Walking on Cowrie Shells by Nana Nkweti: In her genre-bending debut story collection, the Cameroonian-American writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Nana Nkweti mixes realism with clever inversions of numerous genres, including horror, mystery, myth, young adult, and science fiction. You’ll meet linguistic anthropologists, comic book enthusiasts, a PR pro trying to spin a zombie outbreak in West Africa, a graphic novelist, a pregnant pastor’s wife, a mermaid. This dazzler of a debut shines a spotlight on lives that bridge the divide between the cultures of Cameroon and America. Nkweti has said she hopes her stories entertain readers while also offering them a counterpoint to prevalent “heart of darkness” writing that too often depicts a singular African experience. (Bill)
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch by Rivka Galchen: For the title alone, I’m in, no matter who wrote it. But then it’s also Rivka Galchen? Trying her hand at historical fiction? I’m hitting preorder. Based in 1618 Germany at the start of the 30 Years War it tells the story of Katherina Kepler, an illiterate woman known for her herbal remedies. When a neighbor accuses Katherina of poisoning her, Katherina’s brilliant son, an Imperial Mathematician, must defend her. Galchen, known for her fiction and journalism, drew on real historical documents to write her tale of a family threatened by superstitious fears. (Hannah)
Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn: A little knowledge, they say, can be a dangerous thing. But is there such a thing as too much knowledge? Of the world we live in? Of the people we live with? In St. Aubyn’s seventh novel the sacred and the profane, the rough and the refined are set against each other as the passionate and the rational play out in the lives of three close friends. No one comes out unscathed, or unenlightened. (Il’ja)

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

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

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

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford: In this memoir, writer, podcaster, and educator Ashley Ford tells the story of her upbringing. Amid struggles with poverty, rape, and her father’s incarceration, Ford describes the process through which she ultimately came to better understand herself, her surroundings, and her family. Glennon Doyle writes, “The gravity and urgency of Somebody’s Daughter anchored me to my chair and slowed my heartbeat—like no book has since Toni Morrison‘s The Bluest Eye.” (Jacqueline)
Revival Season by Monica West: A spectacular coming-of-age novel. Miriam’s father, one of the most famous preachers in the South, uses his healing powers to cure people of their diseases. But one summer, the fifteen-year-old Miriam starts to doubt her father’s powers and her faith after witnessing an incident. In the following year and through her painful exploration, Miriam has to confront and resolve the tension between feminism and faith. Revival Season is not only an inner journey of the becoming of a young lady in the South, but also a precise geological picture of the Bible Belt and how faith shapes the community and the family. (Jianan Qian)
How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith: The power of an itinerant narrator—Smith journeys to Monticello, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and downtown Manhattan—is that it reveals slavery’s expansive, geographical legacy. Smith tells his stories with the soul of a poet and the heart of an educator. Smith’s ambitious book is fueled by a humble sense of duty: he sought the wisdom of those who tell of slavery’s legacy “outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks”; public historians who “have dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others.” Smith channels the spirit of Toni Morrison here; the writer as one to pass on the word so that it is never forgotten. (Nick R.)
Last Comes the Raven by Italo Calvino (translated by Ann Goldstein): Calvino’s early stories shine here, as with the titular tale, originally published in The Paris Review in 1954: “The stream was a net of limpid, delicate ripples, with the water running through the mesh. From time to time, like a fluttering of silver wings, the dorsum of a trout flashed on the surface, the fish at once plunging zigzag down into the water.” Readers of Calvino know his mercurial ability to move from mimesis to mystery, his syntax full of glorious surprises. (Nick R.)
Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James: I’m a sucker for both “late-blooming” life stories and plucky protagonists. Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s official bio tells us that she “was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer” before sitting down to write, and her jacket copy describes the Millennial protagonist of her debut novel as “the sort who says exactly the right thing at absolutely the wrong moments, seeing the world through a cynic’s eyes.” Also she’s been both a Pushcart and Glimmer Train story nominee, which to my mind is still mad cred. I’m sold. (Sonya)

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

With Teeth by Kristen Arnett: In the follow-up to her best-selling debut, Mostly Dead Things, Arnett explores a queer family that is struggling to hold itself together. Sammie Lucas spends her days feeling resentful and removed from her wife Monika, and worrying over her son Samson. As Samson grows and becomes increasingly hostile, all their lives begin to implode. “With Teeth is a wonderfully sticky novel about motherhood, partnership, sex, and love,” writes Emma Straud. “Kristen Arnett lets her characters have the run of the place, and it’s delicious fun to watch them do, say, and think things they’ll regret.” (Carolyn)

God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney: In journalist McKinney’s debut novel, sisters Abigail and Caroline uncover a lifechanging secret about their father—the head pastor at the local evangelical megachurch. When their world splits open, the sisters flee to the ranch handed down to them by their grandmother, where they will have to take stock of who or what mattters—and who or what is worth saving. With praise from Rumaan Alam, Lynn Steger Strong, Esmé Weijun Wang, R.O. Kwon, among others, this coming-of-age debut about sisterhood, faith, community, and Evangelical Christianity is sure to delight. (Carolyn)

To Write as If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno: In her formally ambitious and genre blurring new book, Guggenheim Fellow Zambreno writes about trying (and failing) to write a critical study of Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life—as well as ruminating on themes like friendship, morality, literature, time, and memory. Moyra Davey says, “This book is a tour de force. I was completely awestruck by the way Zambreno enacts the concept of the title, and by the way she writes the body, hers and Guibert’s. It is a moving performative act, a document of our time from the trenches, and a brilliant critical study.” (Carolyn)

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin: Set in 1976 New York, Pru Steiner arrives in the city and falls headlong into a marriage with Spence Robin, her Shakespeare professor. When Spence is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, Pru must grapple with the grief, loneliness, and pain of caretaking. Amidst the heartache, two unlikely men enter her life—one brings the potential of romance; the other is Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage—and provide a bit of hope. Sigrid Nunuz writes, “[Morningside Heights’] greatest achievement is to make us feel that we are in the presence of real people, living out their joys and sorrows and making their way in the real world.” (Carolyn)

The Portrait of a Mirror by A. Natasha Joukovsky: In her funny, sharp debut, Joukovsky reimagines the muth of Narcissus in the form of two beautiful, wealthy, and well-intentioned (but selfish) couples: one in New York, one in Philadelphia. When their paths cross and their lives becomes increasingly emeshed, they fall prey to each other and their own outsized desires. Emily Temple raves, “The Portrait of a Mirror is an absolute delight: an intellectually dazzling, deliciously wicked novel about love, art, illusion, and modernity—not to mention a pitch-perfect satire of New York’s beautiful people. (Carolyn)

The Confession of Copeland Cane by Keenan Norris: Set in the near future in East Oakland, California, eighteen-year-old Copeland Cane is a normal Black teenager living in an dystopian police state where brutality is televised and a deadly pandemic is raging. When he attends a protest that turns violent, Copeland becomes a fugitive of the state. Nayomi Munaweera writes: “This book is praise song, love letter, and requiem for Black and Brown bodies caught up in California’s post-pandemic, private-police ruled near future. A powerfully voiced, page-turning novel and required reading for anyone attempting to understand the struggle for racial justice.” (Carolyn)

What Makes You Think You’re Awake? by Maegan Poland: Whether its a honeymoon trip that takes a turn for the worst or a woman who must choose how she uses her time-freezing backyard shed, Poland’s short story collection explores the human condition in all its messy glory. Winner of the 2020 Bakwin Award, judge Carmen Maria Machado calls the short stories “a wonderful debut; a collection of frank, funny, and heartbreaking stories that delve into the mire of human loneliness.” (Carolyn)

Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi: In their epistolary memoir, Emezi—the award-winning, genre-shifting author of Freshwater, Pet, and The Death of Vivek Oji—explores their life, creativity, gender, relationships, and sense of self. “A remarkable memoir by a writer who doesn’t shy away from sharing their ambitions or their vulnerabilities,” says Booklist. (Carolyn)

Must-Read Poetry: May 2021

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Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Even Shorn by Isabel Duarte-Gray 

An impressive debut that reverberates with its anchoring sense of place. The “night river is a woman washing / clean the moon / upon forgiving rocks,” Duarte-Gray writes in “Cutter Quilt,” and later wonders: “are these nails my person are they / dead apart of me the callus where / I grip my drawknife.” Western Kentucky pulses in this book, sustained by a folk sense that plays with horror and myth. Deft with the open space of the page and unafraid for lines to linger in those wide fields, Duarte-Gray creates a stunning sense of discomfort. In “Drunkard’s Path,” “My old mother kneaded bread / newborn gathered at the breast / full as circle skirt / her blue-eyed cotton lap” until a man comes home drunk, swinging, “his fists falling like / a basset skull caught the back hoof / of a unbroke horse.” These poems exist like hushed stories passed like terrible gifts across generations—the recognition that perhaps we will remain scarred: “Took me time to learn you can’t heal in body.”

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly 

With an expansive voice that is always tethered to the craft of material of stanzas and lines, Kelly creates a powerful second book. Kelly lines feel sustained by a collective voice—a perspective sometimes grammatically present within the lines, other times occupying something like a heartbeat in the charged material. “We come from abundance,” she begins one poem, “each season / bowed with rain.” She writes: “I watch the shoulder burn, / drive through the smoke that blots the mountains, / and holds the old yolk of sun.” The narrators of these poems are dizzy from pain, and seek to affirm: “Tonight, my love, we are free / of men, of gods, and I am a river // against you, drawn to current and eddy, / ready to make, to be unmade.” In addition to the rupture of childhood, Kelly also reveals the pain of separation—the longing that brings broken hearts temporarily together, and yet ultimately, “the gesture weak, / the occasion quite late.” Kelly’s past and present intermingle: “Fathers are for children,” she ends one poem, “and I was never a child, / only a smaller image of myself.” Absent of belief, her narrators ask incomplete questions and wander in mystery, and yet the wandering itself is affirmation enough: “I’ve always had: a dull knife, / a child afraid of the night and herself, // the woman you left. Still, there’s only doing / and done, the same sun, and who can remember home?”

Flares by Christopher Merrill

While reflecting on his time in Slovenia, Merrill said he found a world where “poets and writers, filmmakers and artists” played a distinct role “in fomenting, prophesying, or attempting to stave off the crisis, and then in bearing witness to what they saw. This was deeply interesting to me as a poet coming from a country in which the arts have a rather marginal place. It was disorienting to be in a place where artists took center stage.” Merrill’s life as a writer has been focused on imagining a world where the storyteller’s vision matters, and that vision sustains Flares, a book that also demonstrates the narrative merit of the prose poem tradition. The vignettes arise from an itinerant eye. In “Fall and Recovery,” a safety inspector describes the concept of “crazing”: the manner of a “rack widening in the window of the plane,” the “mesh of lines spreading from the bullet-sized hole in the plastic through which shine glaciers melting in the sea below.” In the fable “Without,” a goat climbs to the top branch of an acacia tree, blares parables, and then “drifted off to sleep, unafraid of what the waxing moon might bring.” In one of the final poems, Merrill wonders: “What became of the vase of lilacs propped on the windowsill of the house tugged by a truck from one end of the street to the other?” A touching, diverse collection.

Collected Poems by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Ní Chuilleanáin has joked that she has never really suffered from writer’s block, but added “I think that my complete works in poetry would add up to something about an inch thick.” I can verify the literal truth of this observation through the book on my desk, but there’s a wealth of comedy, tragedy, and wisdom in her statement. We might write for all of our lives, and yet what we leave behind might only be measured in inches. Humbling, certainly, but perhaps also freeing. Her Collected Poems is a worthy testament to a notable life in poetry, beginning with the 1972 collection Acts and Monuments, and reaching to recent works. From that first book, “Family” glows: “Water has no memory / And you drown it in like a kind of absence.” That paradox permeates these collected works. She writes “Our history is a mountain of salt / a leaking strain under the evening cliff / it will be gone in time / grass will grow there— // not in our time.” A book to spend hours, days, years within.

May 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.

Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: At the outset of this marvelous novel, Flora Mancini finds her husband’s wedding ring—the one he told her he lost over a decade ago—and the discovery leads her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about their life together. I read Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s follow-up to her bestselling debut The Nest in two breathless days, eager to find out what would happen next in this elegantly depicted story about marriage, friendship, loyalty, and the intersections of art and commerce, love and secrets. When I was finished, I was plunged into the kind of sweet melancholy that only the end of a good book brings. (Edan)
Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness by Nick Ripatrazone: This is the second book by my fellow contributing editor Ripatrazone, whose first book, Longing for An Absent God, investigated Catholicism in American fiction and its influence on storytelling. Wild Belief continues Nick’s scholarship on spirituality—this time, considering how the spiritual tradition sees nature as a site for renewal and wonder. He synthesizes the work of philosophers, poets, and even saints, to understand why we are drawn to nature even as we fear it, and how it enriches our lives. (Edan)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Now that her Outline trilogy is complete, we get to see where Cusk, winner of the Whitbread Award and one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists, travels next. When a woman invites a famous artist to visit the remote coastal region where she lives, she hopes that his gaze will penetrate the mysteries of the landscape and of her life. The publisher describes it as a novel that examines, “the possibility that art can both save and destroy us.” (Claire)
 
The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy: Pundits always feel the need to draw upon past masters like Franz Kafka or George Orwell to explain our dystopian present, but in the future it may very well be Alex McElroy and their debut novel The Atmospherians which best elucidates our panopticon-surveyed, late capitalist hellscape epoch. In the novel, doxxed influencer Sasha Marcus must reconstitute her brand after her woman’s wellness venture was destroyed by men’s rights activists, and so she founds a rehabilitation institute to cure men of their toxic masculinity. A trenchant picture of our world right now, The Atmospherians is equal parts perceptive and prescient. (Ed S.)
In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan: Social distancing marked the lonely horror that was this year; paradoxically a demonstration of how affection and empathy for our fellow humans required us to retreat into ourselves, connection now defined by the absence of contact. Ethel Rohan’s book of short stories examines something similar in his evocation of what lack of connection can do to us. With a diversity of characters ranging from a childless immigrant daughter justifying her decision to her parents, a grumpy crossing guard honoring the time he got hit by a truck, a demented priest looking for redemption, and a plucky teen detective, In the Event of Contact is a loving homage to humanity in all of its complexity.(Ed S.)
Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes: It’s hard to know why the Vernon Subutex trilogy, an unlikely cocktail of Wolfish satire, Houellebecqesque pessimism, and Ferrantean range and rage, hasn’t kicked up more of a fuss here in the U.S. (though maybe I just answered my own question). Still, it’s easy to see why Nell Zink’s a fan. This third installment concludes the adventures of our titular hero, a peripatetic and intermittently visionary ex-record store owner cut loose on the streets of Paris. (Garth)
The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado: A debut short story collection with elements of the fantastic, surreal, and speculative—flying children, strange creatures on the roof—that the publisher compares to work from Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. (Lydia)
 
Cheat Day by Liv Stratman: In Stratman’s funny and sharp debut, college sweethearts Kit and David are still together—but their relationship is falling apart. As the couple embarks on an intense fad diet together, Kit finds herself beginning an affair with someone she met at work. As Kit gives into her carnal desire, she begins to diet more severely. Jami Attenberg writes, “Sexy, witty and down-to-earth, Cheat Day tackles the truths about our modern occupations with wellness, relationships and what it means to be happy.” (Carolyn)
Phase Six by Jim Shepard: This uncomfortably timely novel imagines our next pandemic, unleashed by thawing permafrost. Set in Greenland, it follows 11-year-old Aleq, who unwittingly brings back a virus from an open mining site and survives a devastating outbreak. CDC epidemiologists are then dispatched to study the virus and prevent a global pandemic. They take Aleq into their care, and the novel follows multiple points of view as the catastrophe unfolds. (Hannah)
 
Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber: Silber’s ninth work of fiction is the story of a young New York lawyer who discovers that his father has a secret family in Queens: a Thai wife and two young children. Ethan’s mother leaves the country in the wake of the revelation, while Ethan becomes involved in a love triangle of his own. This complex, intergenerational novel spans three continents as it reveals the connection between the two families, no longer secret to each other. (Hannah)
Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng: A young girl in China hears from her long-emigrated parents that they will collect her soon and bring her to America. While she fights to stay in the place she knows, her parents are working through their own crises as they navigate the past and the future. Of the novel Garth Greenwell raves, “Everything in this gorgeously orchestrated novel surprises, everything outraces expectation. Swimming Back to Trout River is one of the most beautiful debuts I have read in years.” (Lydia)
The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti: In August 1947, as talk of Partition swirls on the streets of New Delhi, 16-year-old Deepa trades messages encoded in intricate origami with her boyfriend Amir. Seventy years later, in Atlanta, Georgia, Deepa’s granddaughter, reeling from marital troubles and the recent loss of a pregnancy, begins to search for her estranged grandmother and in the process piece together the history of her family shattered by the violent separation of India and Pakistan. Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars, calls The Parted Earth, the second of two books by Enjeti out this spring, “a devastating portrayal of Partition and the trauma it wreaked in the generations that followed.” (Michael)
The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Everything is vanishing, or so it appears to Anna, the protagonist in Flanagan’s new novel that is “one part elegy, one part dream, one part hope.” Hailed as the Booker Prize winner’s greatest novel yet, the new work tackles climate change, family ties, and resilience in the Anthropocene. (Nick M.)

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead: Spanning from 1920s Montana to wartime London to present day Los Angeles, Shipstead’s historical novel follows Marian Graves, an infamous 20th century aviator, and Hadley Baxter, the Hollywood starlet cast in Marian’s biopic a century later. Weaving through time and space, the novel explores fate, love, and fulfillment. Receiving starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, the latter calls the novel a “breathtaking epic” and a “stunning feat.” (Carolyn)
Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd): The newest novel from Breast and Eggs is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy who is mercilessly bullied for his lazy eye. With grace and clarity, Kawakami explores destructive nature of adolescent violence, and the power of empathetic friendships. About the novel, Naoise Dolan writes: “Heaven is told with astonishing frankness and economy. It will cut through all your defences down to every layer of fear, isolation, hope and need you’ve ever felt.” (Carolyn)
Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger: Selected as a winner of the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards, Dancyger’s illustrated and reported memoir manages to be so many wonderful and heartbreaking things at once. With empathy and gorgeous prose, Dancyger excavates, explores, and attempts to understands her father—a brilliant artist and addict—as he was: flawed, complicated, and so very, very loved. T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, calls the debut “candid, thrilling, wickedly smart” and “one of the greatest memoirs of this, or any, time.” (Carolyn)
Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho: In her newest book, Cho—an author, sociologist, and Korean immigrant—blends food memoir; sociological explorations of her mother’s South Korean upbringing; and her complicated relationship with her mother, who had schizophrenia. Allie Rowbottom says that Cho’s “raw, reaching, and propulsive” memoir “creates and explores an epic conversation about heritage and history, intergenerational trauma and the connective potential of food to explore a mother’s fractured past.” (Carolyn)
Nervous System by Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell): In her newest novel, award-winning Chilean author Meruane follows Ella, an astrophysicist, as she struggles to write her dissertation and care for her partner, El, who is recovering from a near-fatal work accident. As the stress and secrets begin to consume her, Ella invokes the spirit of her late mother and asks her to inflict her with an illness. Sarah Moss says, “Nervous System is fast, uncompromising, and shimmering with intelligence.”(Carolyn)
Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcalá: Originally published in 1997, Alcalá’s award-winning debut novel is being reissued with a new forward by Rigoberto González. Set in 1870s Mexico, Spirits of the Ordinary explores the complexities of survival, faith, and culture. In its original review, Publishers Weekly’s starred review said: “Alcala’s seductive writing mixes fatalism and hope, logic and fantasy, to create moral, emotional and political complexities.” (Carolyn)

Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman: Author, activist, and AIDS historian Schulman has written the ultimate account of the triumphs, tragedies, and political activism of the New York City AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) chapter. “Sarah Schulman has written more than an authoritative history of ACT UP NY here—it is a masterpiece of historical research and intellectual analysis that creates many windows into both a vanished world and the one that emerged from it, the one we live in now,” says Alexander Chee. “Any reader will be changed, I think, by the stories here–radicalized and renewed, which to me is something better than just hope.” (Carolyn)

April Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
 
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge: Inspired by the true story of one of the first Black female doctors in America, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s new novel tells the story of Libertie Sampson coming of age in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn. Libertie’s mother, a physician, wants her daughter to attend medical school and practice alongside her but, unlike her mother who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. After accepting an offer of marriage from a young Haitian man promising equality on the island, Libertie finds she is still considered inferior to her husband, and all men. In the words of Brandon Taylor, author of Booker short-listed Real Life, “In this singular novel, Kaitlyn Greenidge confronts the anonymizing forces of history with her formidable gifts. Libertie is a glorious, piercing song for the ages—fierce, brilliant, and utterly free.” (Adam Price)
Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi: Following 2019’s “Hansel and Gretel”-inspired Gingerbread, Oyeyemi brings her readers on a surreal, inspired journey, beginning with hypnotist Otto Shin going off on a “non-honeymoon honeymoon” with his longtime boyfriend, Xavier. A train trip, their honeymoon takes an odd turn Ava Kapoor, the train’s owner, reveals that she’s set to receive a large inheritance. And when a mysterious passenger threatens that inheritance—and a young man named Yuri begins intervening in their lives—Otto and Xavier find their trip becoming more and more stressful. (Thom)
An Alternative History of Pittsburgh by Ed Simon: Pittsburgh native Ed Simon, erudite staff writer at The Millions, has written an idiosyncratic and predictably brainy book about his hometown, to be published by the inspiring independent house, Belt Publishing. Pennsylvania is Simon’s clay, as witnessed by this passage from a post-election essay that appeared in Belt Magazine: “Far more capable tyrants than Trump have been felled by Pennsylvania. This vanquishing feels like George Meade turning back Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It makes me want to ring the Liberty Bell until its crack breaks the whole thing apart and the light can get in.” The light got in. This book will help you understand how and why. (Bill)
Subdivision by J Robert Lennon: J Robert Lennon, one of our most reliably interesting and adventurous novelists, returns in 2021 with Subdivision, an offering both darker and more whimsical than his critically lauded 2017 foray into crime fiction, Broken River. Subdivision continues Lennon’s fascinating career-long exploration of perception and memory, as an unnamed narrator finds herself in, well, the Subdivision, a mysterious locale where the unsettling and inexplicable routinely occur. Accompanied by an Alexa-like digital assistant named Cylvia, the narrator explores the maze-like neighborhood, and as the jigsaw puzzle in the guest house where the narrator is staying nears completion, the Subdivision’s true character begins to emerge. (Adam Price)
The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler): It seems that New Directions releases a new translation of Lispector’s work at least every few years, and thank goodness, I can never get enough of her writing. This latest volume is a translation of what has been called Lispector’s “most accessible” book. A surprise when considering that this is the work that follows The Passion According to GH, and need I remind you, much of that wondrous novel consists of the narrator crossing a room to kill and consume a cockroach (and well, so much more). When Lispector was asked why she wrote something so straightforward, she replied, “I humanized myself.” (Anne)
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade: “This year Amadeo Padilla is Jesus.” Someone has been hearing my prayers: Quade has taken one of the finest short stories from her debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, and revisited the tale to create a masterful novel of family, faith, doubt. Quade’s storytelling gift is her ability to capture the mysterious pulse of belief and ground them in visceral ritual on the page. She begins with Amadeo’s dream role for Holy Week—no silky-haired, rosy-cheeked, honey-eyed Jesus. Amadeo pines for meaning his life: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion. How many people can say they’ve done that for God?” Yet his plans are strained when his daughter reveals her secret. It turns out that the Lord and great storytellers work in mysterious ways. (Nick R.)
The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken: There’s good reason a new Elizabeth McCracken book is cause for celebration: everything she writes—her short stories, her novels, and, hey, also a memoir—is consistently brilliant. Her work is the perfect amount of odd, witty, tender, and deceptively heart-splitting. This latest is a short story collection that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “sly” and “emotionally complex.” There are twelve stories in all, including one about a mother who gorges on challah because she longs for her kids, and another about an actress who plays a villain on a children’s show and her loser brother. I can’t wait. (Edan)
The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright: A Black man is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct, where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn’t commit. After signing a confession, he escapes from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers beneath the streets of the city. Sound familiar? No, this didn’t happen last week. It’s the premise of the previously unpublished novel from the 1940s, The Man Who Lived Underground, by the immortal Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy. This novel cut close to the author’s heart. As he put it: “I have never written anything in my life that stemmed more from pure inspiration.” (Bill)
My Good Son by Yang Huang: The winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, My Good Son is about a tailor named Mr. Cai in post-Tiananmen China and the dreams he holds for his only son, Feng. Mr. Cai schemes with one of his clients, Jude, a gay American expat, to get his son to the States, and the novel, about parental expectations, social class, and sexuality, highlights both the similarities and differences between Chinese and American cultures. Huang, who has previously published a novel and a collection of linked stories, grew up in China and moved to the states to study computer science—only to also pursue writing. She says, “In writing I can let down my walls, suspend my moral judgment, and pour my deepest compassion into the written words.” (Edan)
First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel): The eight stories in this new collection by Murakami are all told in the first person singular voice. This narrator shares a lot of passions with the author: nostalgia of young love and sex, ruminations on Jazz music, and the enthusiasm in baseball. Like Murakami’s previous stories, the charm of magical realism is always sustained by a philosophical meditation on love, loneliness, and memory. (Jianan Qian) 

Lightseekers by Femi Kayode: A Nigerian crime drama with wide-ranging sociological and political implications, Lightseekers introduces the unusual detective Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist more interested in why than how. After an angry mob beats and then burns three undergraduate students in a Nigerian border town and the killings are widely shared on social media, the powerful father of one victim hires Taiwo to figure out what really happened. The police can’t find a motive for the murders, but Taiwo (with the help of his streetwise driver, Chika) faces a dangerous conspiracy to reveal the private violence behind the public attack. (Kaulie) 
Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian: A comic surreal novel about a young man growing up in the Atlanta burbs, a scheme of his neighbor’s that goes awry, and his adulthood as a history grad student surrounded by the new gold rush of Silicon Valley. Celeste Ng says of the novel “In a perfect alchemical blend of familiar and un-, Gold Diggers takes a wincingly hilarious coming-of-age story, laces it with magical realism and a trace of satire, and creates a world that’s both achingly familiar and marvelously inventive. Written with such assurance it’s hard to believe it’s Sanjena Sathian’s debut, this is a dizzyingly original, fiercely funny, deeply wise novel about the seductive powers—and dangers—of borrowed ambition.” (Lydia)
Southbound by Anjali Enjeti: For generations, portraits of race relations in the American South have been painted only in Black and white. But as more Asian and Latinx people settle south of the Mason-Dixon line, that picture has grown more complex – and more interesting. In her debut essay collection, Enjeti, an election activist and former attorney, tackles a wide range of topics spanning from voter suppression to the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the South and the whitewashing of Southern literature. (Michael) 
Farthest South & Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford: Following his acclaimed debut collection, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, Rutherford’s sophomore collection  blurs the boundaries between dreams, fables, and the mystical to explore themes like family, grief,  and illness.  About the eight stories, Laura van den Berg writes: “Drawing on landscapes both mythic—the fairytale, the ghost story—and domestic, this collection illuminates terrors that feel at once prescient and eternal.”  (Carolyn)
Nancy by Bruno Lloret (translated by Ellen Jones): Lloret’s English language debut follows a recently-widowed, cancer-striken woman on her deathbed as she looks back on her sad, lonely, and bleak life in Chile. Fernando A. Flores calls Nancy “a devastating, psychic exploration of our crumbling world, told in a visceral style that proves Bruno Lloret to be a force among the emerging Chilean writers of today.” (Carolyn)

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

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

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

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

Must-Read Poetry: March 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Peach State by Adrienne Su

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

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

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

American Wake by Kerrin McCadden

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

In the Antarctic Circle by Dennis James Sweeney

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

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

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

No Chronology by Karen Fish

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

March Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

 

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: The citation for the 2017 Novel Prize in Literature says Ishiguro has “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” This new novel, his first published since the win, follows Klara, who is an Artificial Friend. While she’s an older model, she also has exceptional observational qualities. The storyline, according to the publisher, asks a fundamental question, “What does it mean to love?” The result sounds like the perfect blend of Ishiguro’s much loved books, Never Let Me Go and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day. (Claire)
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen: The much anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, entertains as much as it offers cultural analysis. Set in 1980s Paris, the main character of The Sympathizer sells drugs, attends dinner parties with left-wing intellectuals, and turns his attention towards French culture, considering capitalism and colonization. Paul Beatty says, “Think of The Committed as the declaration of the 20th ½ Arrondissement. A squatter’s paradise for those with one foot in the grave and the other shoved halfway up Western civilization’s ass.” Sharply and humorously written, Ocean Vuong notes that the sequel asks: “How do we live in the wake of seismic loss and betrayal? And, perhaps even more critically, How do we laugh?” (Zoë)
Red Island House by Andrea Lee: It’s been almost fifteen years since Andrea Lee published a book (Lost Hearts in Italy) and I’ve been sitting here waiting for it. Her fiction and memoirs often center on Black characters living abroad, and she writes with such lush and observant precision that you feel you are traveling with her. Her newest novel is set in a small village in Madagascar, where Shay, a Black professor of literature, and her wealthy Italian husband Senna, build a lavish vacation home. Unfolding over two decades, Lee’s new novel explores themes of race, class, and gender, as Shay reluctantly takes on the role of matriarch, learning to manage a household staff and estate. Kirkus calls it “a highly critical vision of how the one percent live in neocolonial paradise.” (Hannah)
The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter: Winter follows her well-received debut (2016’s Break in Case of Emergency) with a multi-generational story of love, family, obligation, and guilt. The novel follows Jane from a miserable 1970s adolescence to an unexpected high school pregnancy and marriage, through the sweetness of early parenthood to the fraught complications of ideology, adoption, and life with a teenaged daughter. (Emily M.)

 

Mona by Pola Oloixarac (translated by Adam Morris): Mona, Pola Oloixarac’s third novel, seems a fitting book for all of us to read while looking back on 2020: the eponymous narrator is a drug-addled and sardonic, albeit much admired and Peruvian writer based in California. After she’s nominated for Europe’s most important literary prize, Mona flees to a small town near the Arctic Circle to escape her demons in a way that seems not unlike David Bowie‘s fleeing LA for bombed-out Berlin. She soon finds she hasn’t escaped hers as much as she’s locked herself up with them. According to Andrew Martin, Mona “reads as though Rachel Cusk‘s Outline Trilogy was thrown in a blender with Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666, and then lightly seasoned with the bitter flavor of Horacio Castellanos Moya.” (Anne)
Girlhood by Melissa Febos: Fusing memoir, cultural commentary, and research, critically-acclaimed writer Febos explores the beauty and discomfort of girlhood (and womanhood) in her newest essay collection. With her signature lyricism and haunting honesty, the essays explore the ways girls inherit, create, interrogate, and rewrite the narratives of their lives. Kirkus’ starred review calls the collection “consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.” (Carolyn)
 
The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan: Alyan’s varied talents never cease to amaze. The award-winning author of four collections of poetry and one novel, Alyan also works as a clinical psychologist. Her newest novel touches on themes and locales familiar to those who’ve read her work including family, war, Brooklyn, and the Middle East. The Nasr family has spread across the world, but remains rooted in their ancestral home in Beirut. When the family’s new patriarch decides to sell, all must reunite to save the house and confront their secrets in a city still reeling from the impact of its past and ongoing tensions. (Jacqueline)

 

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

 

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster: From the author of the acclaimed novel Halsey Street (finalist for a Kirkus Prize) comes a story of family, race, and friendship. Opening in the 1990s and extending to the present, the book follows two families in Piedmont, NC, one white, one Black. Living on separate sides of town, they live separate lives until the local school’s integration efforts set off a chain of events that will bond the families to each other in profound and unexpected ways. (Jacqueline)
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson: After her father doesn’t return from checking his traps near their home, Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakota girl who’s grown up surrounded by the woods and stories of plants, is sent to live with a foster family. Decades later, widowed and grieving, she returns to her childhood home to confront the past and find identity and community — and a cache of seeds, passed down from one generation of women to the next. The first novel from Dakota writer Diane Wilson, “The Seed Keeper invokes the strength that women, land, and plants have shared with one another through the generations,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer. (Kaulie)
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: In a follow-up to Mbue’s celebrated Behold the Dreamers, winner of the 2017 PEN/Faulkner award, How Beautiful We Were tells a story of environmental exploitation and a fictional African village’s fight to save itself. An American oil company’s leaking pipelines are poisoning the land and children of Kosawa, and in the face of government inaction the villagers strike back, sparking a series of small revolutions with outsized impact. Kosawa’s story is told by the family of Thula, a village girl who grows into a charismatic revolutionary and who Sigrid Nunez calls “a heroine for our time.” (Kaulie) 
Eat the Mouth that Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza: Fragoza’s surreal and gothic stories, focused on Latinx, Chicanx, and immigrant women’s voices, are sure to surprise and move readers. Natalia Sylvester states, “Like the Chicanx women whose voices she centers, Carribean Fragoza’s writing doesn’t flinch. It is sharp and dream-like, tender-hearted and brutal, carved from the violence and resilience of generations past and present.” Eat the Mouth That Feeds You explores themes of lineage, motherhood, violence, and much more. Héctor Tobar writes that this short story collection “establishes Fragoza as an essential and important new voice in American fiction.” (Zoë)  
Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter: A dystopian novel about fortune-telling and rape culture set in a world where women’s fates are inscribed on their bodies. Of the novel Anne Valente writes, “Through the lens of dystopia, this incandescent debut novel holds a critical mirror up to our world’s limitations on gender and the violence of those restraints, while it also forges a bold vision for agency, self-determination and freedom. Through and through, this is a powerful and luminous book.” (Lydia)
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton): Tsumura’s novel begins with an unnamed narrator constantly watching someone. It is her job, and she’d been given a rule “not to fast-forward the footage,” except if her target is sleeping. She ponders how much money she spends on eye drops from having to keep her gaze fixed. “It was weird,” she thinks, “because I worked such long hours, and yet, even while working, I was basically doing nothing. I’d come to the conclusion that there were very few jobs in the world that ate up as much time and as little brainpower as watching over the life of a novelist who lived alone and worked from home.” A nearly hypnotic book that shifts between despair and transcendence. (Nick R.)
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan: Nolan, a columnist and writer for The New Statesman, Vice, and other places, depicts a young couple’s dysfunctional relationship and its aftermath in her debut. In 2012, the unnamed narrator becomes infatuated with an art critic named Ciaran, who seems “undeniably whole” in contrast to the people around him. The two begin dating, and things quickly become toxic, with Ciaran insulting the narrator’s friends and peppering her with cruel remarks. Throughout, we see glimpses of the narrator in 2019, when she’s reflecting on her past and working to move on from Ciaran. (Thom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must-Read Poetry: February 2021

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Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov

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

Promoteo by C. Dale Young

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

Self-Portrait with Cephalopod by Kathryn Smith

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

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank

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

The Readiness by Alan Gillis

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

February Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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

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

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

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

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

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview

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

Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must-Read Poetry: January 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich 

The book’s first poem, a jaunty etymological journey through the poet’s last name, establishes a folkloric tone to the collection: imagine a trickster who has come from the cold forest one evening to knock on a cabin door. There’s a darkness here foretold by the book’s title, which calls to mind complexity: a God of nothingness, no-thing, absence as an eerie poetic presence. In “Haunted House,” the narrator moves into a home and “gutted it to the bones.” He tore up the floor “to uncover a floor, // sanded tulip poplar to a sheen.” Perhaps that was what stirred the house to “wake,” and its stories came to him: “Now I live here alone with the spirits I cannot see.” Rilke and Roethke haunt this wonderfully melancholic book: “I wanted more—not of summer, // with its swampy air and the nightmare / amphibian whir, but of autumn // with its metallic skies swept with clouds, of the promise of something about to end, // but not yet taken away.” Incantatory, Wunderlich’s poems are perfect for journeying elsewhere—as with “Proposition”: “That the smell of cows drifting in the open window is, indeed, that of a living beast. // That I too am a living beast.” Later: “That we were born suffering, but that we are not meant to suffer.” But what of the title? Where is the no-thing? Everywhere, Wunderlich suggests: “I watch at the edge of the grove, the bees flung out / into the sun. My only life is being spent—today— // the longest day of the year, here on a hill looking out / for a moment and feeling my body unearthed.” Take this book to a silent place, and let yourself go.  

Pretty Tripwire by Alessandra Lynch

Lynch can quickly and effectively render uncomfortable moments. In the long first poem, the narrator considers her fractured childhood, how “Not eating was a sign / of grief / in our house.” Her mother “stunned / thin as a rake draped / with her wedding veil, bruised eye / staring out.” Meanwhile, “mouth / stuffed with a fist / lest someone hear,” she recoils in her bedroom. Soon, checked into the hospital with a “yellow wrist ID for the children’s ward,” she sees that “lovers sailed past, / arm-in-arm, ample with flowers.” Lynch’s usage of ample here reveals her instinct for juxtaposition: the world opening beyond a moment of suffering. This sense returns in “Hymnal”: “Book in my hands—thin / & sleek” and “Whelk of syllable, / silk against my cheek, the book is / ballast.” Again, in the poem “Worry”: a hummingbird’s “tiny body throbbed with sound, fast-heaving, clacking / music.” And yet: was the bird “restless prisoner of air or pioneer?” Can any of us ever know?

The Sunflower Cast A Spell to Save Us From the Void by Jackie Wang

Wang’s debut collection, formally diverse and marked with a sardonic tinge, suggests a porous border between the dream and waking worlds. “Who is the woman lurking in the woods?” she wonders in an early poem, recognizing that she is a “fellow traveler,” for “She is lost and I am lost.” Wang drifts between the real and unreal, documenting an almost Yeatsian interest in that third space, a poetic place between, where the absurd is necessary. She imbues her lines with this hypnotic sense: “In the rain, in her head, an elegy for the not-quite-dead.” Among sentences from Cixous, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and others, Wang outlines a poetics perhaps best captured by her reference to Anne Carson, and her translation of Sappho when “brackets appear in the poems where the papyrus has disintegrated, as papyrus is the structure of dreams. Never intact.”

Stay Safe by Emma Hine 

One particular poem that stayed with me from this nice debut was “A Circling,” an understated tale of a man who was attacked by a shark, a “bite of thigh missing, skin like a spider tried / to stop the hole with web.” The narrator can barely look at her great-uncle after seeing his wound, but she becomes so attached to his presence: “By the time he’d died, I’d memorized his shape in the recliner, / the pattern of beer bottles across his floor. Mapping / his aftermath like a frontier.” I’ve been thinking about that dissonance, that looking but not looking, and it is an apt way to consider Hine’s method: a catalogue of bodies spent and passed, of sisters, of those who “want to say that together / we could be two words / the sort that hold hands / but still keep their original meanings.” Hine often returns to shared scars, body markings; in “Still,” the narrator thinks about how her great-grandmother, while nursing her grandmother, saw a foot-long centipede “falling toward her / from a branch, its back-plates twisting.” She moves away the baby, and the centipede, “segmented and heavy, / landed on her exposed breast.” It left a scar that never vanished; Hine’s collection captures that feeling.

Not for Luck by Derek Sheffield 

Sheffield is very adept at finely crafting scenes as the spaces for poems (they expand beyond the time and place of these scenes, but they feel syntactically rooted and united, one by one in the book). An early poem in the collection, “The Scientists Gather at Mount St. Helens,” opens with a question—“What does it mean?”—asked by one of the scientists amid “the wind / of a gray plain” while they look at the “crater’s living steam.” The patchwork of “shrubby trees” among “the clean white spikes / of the countless dead” stand behind them. The poem’s structure suggests a theme and method for Sheffield: what does it mean to be within a world that exists beyond us, longer than us? Melancholy pieces live among heartfelt moments, as in “Daughter and Father in Winter”: “we clap the stuttering // snaps of the kindling / coming to life in the stove.” Later: “More river than daughter / her arms fill with treasures” of rocks, “her pockets // already clack-and-bristle.” Poetry to make you long for moments in the wild. 

The Visible Woman by Allison Funk 

Funk’s newest collection begins with a statement against vanishing; the narrator summons a woman “rib by rib, scapula, tibia,” but “she turns and speeds away / like someone fleeing fire.” The poem establishes an immediate and lasting paradox of body and spirit, request and rejection. In “The Visible Woman,” she affirms: “Mine, too, is a story / of how we disappear” as she considers her childhood assembly kit for an anatomical model of a woman. It was a woman fully revealed, and she now longs “to go back to when I was ten, / to start all over with the bones, / the brain, the heart in two parts / I’m trying to glue together.” Funk often returns to the body as a source of wonder, fear, and possibility. The narrator’s father in “Blood” goes pale at the sight of any of the titular fluid, “so I learned / to hide my wounds—scraped knees, / little playground injuries, even gashes / that needed stitching.” In “Vespers,” she partially laments: “This late I’m still not in the body / I’m trying to occupy.” This sense comes back in “A Nun’s Prayer,” a revision from Psalm 22: “My God my God,” she calls, “I am poured out // bones heart breast // they stare and gloat over me.” Women are forever revealed in these poems.