The world of Claudia Dey's Heartbreaker is just a little ~off~ right from the start. Maybe it's the fact that the young narrator, Pony Darlene Fontaine, explains so casually that she's got 12 cans of gasoline hidden in the woods behind her house. Maybe it's that she refers to her hometown as "the territory" and it seems to exist outside of time. Maybe it's that everyone in the territory has a nickname — like her father, aka "The Heavy" — oh, and also, they all dig each other's graves? What's abundantly clear as the novel progresses — following the search for Pony's mother, from her perspective, and then from her dog's, and then from her crush's — is that this is a book like no other. It's eerie, it's cult-y, it's so very exciting, and I never wanted it to end.
Following a season of (wonderful) books about motherhood, Nicole Chung's memoir stands out for its broadening of the discussion, exploring the complicated consequences of interracial adoption. Chung, who is Korean, confronts her experience of having been adopted by white parents, coming to terms with the ways in which she resents her alienation from a huge part of who she is — in a family that othered her despite their love and best intentions, and in a community that did the same, though often cruelly. When she gets pregnant, she decides it's time to find her biological parents, and in the process discovers an entire family. All You Can Ever Know is the messy navigation of Chung's new reality — her working out the boundaries of these people who are both kin and strangers, her careful confrontation and reconciliation with her parents, and her exploration of the profound, ever-shifting meaning of family.
I knew My Sister, the Serial Killer was going to be something really special from the first sentence: “Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.” It only gets better from there. Oyinkan Braithwaite's debut novel is about a nurse who has found herself in a dangerous pattern of abetting her younger sister who can't seem to stop killing men, and it's a quick read. You can't help flying through the pages, drawn in by the energy simmering right under the surface of the story, waiting for it to burst. But Braithwaite manages, too, to juxtapose this high-stakes story with the mundanity of daily life and its universal disappointments — the secret fantasies of a workplace crush, the pride in and resentment of carrying too many responsibilities, and the bitter pain of watching someone you love captivate everyone she meets when all you want is to be noticed and appreciated by just one person.
Kate Atkinson never disappoints, and her latest novel is another showcase of her mastery of fiction. Transcription is about Juliet Armstrong, who at 18 is recruited by the MI5 to transcribe meetings between one of their spies and pro-Nazi British citizens during WWII. Though she eventually leaves to work at the BBC, she finds the tangled world of espionage isn't so easy to escape. The book is sort of thriller-lite – a bit of mild suspense, some teased intrigue — but as always the greatest joy is Atkinson's language itself: the pitch-perfect dialogue, the funny asides, and the immersive scene building.
On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library burned for over seven hours, a fire that destroyed more than a million books. When journalist and bona fide library-lover Susan Orlean discovered this story decades later, she was shocked she'd never heard of it and was determined to learn more. What follows is not only a thorough investigation of the fire (and the man purported to have set it) but also an examination of the role of libraries as an institution, and the challenges — new and old — that they face. It is, at its core, an ode to the majesty of the public library, and a must-read for all who share that love.
In Spanish, a retablo is an altarpiece; Octavio Solis describes it as a painting on an "old beaten tin" on which "a dire event is depicted, [...] some terrible rift in the person's life, but which the person survives thanks to the intercession of the Divine." It is a lot of meaning to pack into one scene, but all of it is there for the viewer who takes a moment to look. The fragments of Solis's memoir do similar, impressive work: Each depicts the details of a life lived along the Mexico–US border — sometimes chaotic, sometimes tragic, often poignant — but presents a host of "divine intercessions" as understood in retrospection: survival by family, imagination, and faith. Still, it's hard not to consider the border itself as a representation of a "terrible rift," a split between homes, communities, identities, generations. While reading this generous and eye-opening account, it's easy to see how, for the country at large, the rift has only deepened.
Ada Limón's latest poetry collection is a masterful blending of the personal and the political — a piercing look into the nature of pain and impermanence. It is a deeply intimate book (Limón told Bustle she was "a bit dumbfounded as to why I shared so much about my own body"), but through her generous accounting of her bodily struggles with a crooked spine as a child and infertility as an adult, we see overarching themes of life and death, growth and decay, grief and acceptance. In many ways, it is a paean to nature itself, to the peace in knowing it's both part of us and greater than us — especially when everything else in the world can seem like it's falling apart.
In Michael Donkor's immensely readable debut, 17-year-old Ghanian housegirl Belinda is moved from one wealthy family's home to another — the former in Ghana, the latter in London. She's torn about leaving behind 11-year-old Mary, who was something between a little sister and protégé, but both she and Mary are excited about Belinda's chance to befriend the new family's daughter, Amma — whose surliness and Westernized habits and slang make her, unfortunately, utterly foreign. Belinda settles into her new home, adjusting her expectations of both her role in the family and the glamour of London, and the result is a refreshing story about coming of age in spite of conflicting ideas of what "growing up" means.
Brian Phillips' Impossible Owls is an absolute blast. It's always exciting to read a writer who so clearly loves what he's doing, and this debut essay collection — where Phillips writes about, among other subjects, the Iditarod, sumo wrestling, and people who believe they've been abducted by aliens — delivers just that. Yes, he might second-guess his decisions (say, to learn how to fly a plane), but Phillips manages to explore subculture without othering his subjects. He is able to navigate extraordinary circumstances with curiosity, playfulness, and humility, and his enthusiasm is best seen in his extensive research within these communities and their histories. And this is why I couldn't get enough of this book: Phillips is the perfect adventure guide — down for anything, talented enough to translate the experience.
There are no rules in Gina Apostol's inventive, genre-bending novel Insurrecto. The book follows two women on a trip through the Philippines — one an American filmmaker researching a 1901 uprising of Filipino revolutionaries against American occupiers, the other a Filipino writer and translator, working on her own version of the same story. But piecing together historical events that have been long omitted or glossed over is tricky, and Apostol's storytelling mirrors the disorientation such a task can create. Insurrecto comes together as a sort of collage — chapters are numbered but out of order, truth and fiction are blended, and the format varies. It's that kind of magnificent book that begs for a second reading.
Lydia Kiesling's The Golden State follows Daphne — an exhausted mother whose husband is stuck indefinitely in his home country, Turkey, after being pressured into surrendering his green card — over the course of her frantic escape from San Francisco to the abandoned family house in rural Northern California. There is a breathless, antsy energy propelling us through these nine days. The reader chases Kiesling's rambling, comma-less sentences like Daphne scrambles after baby Honey, who is always sliding, writhing, tumbling out of reach. It is enough, almost, to embody Daphne — to feel, along with her, how close she is to her wit's end. So, too, do we feel the relief of her unlikely friendship with the 92-year-old Alice, who briefly joins the duo, and whose unimaginable hardships push Daphne to take stock of her circumstances and figure out what she can do about them — in other words, to reckon with what she controls and what she doesn't. In heartrending prose, Kiesling weaves through an exploration of the political and the private, fear and love, survival and obligation, loneliness and longing.
Bonnie Chau’s All Roads Lead to Blood is an exhilarating debut, written in the kind of honed, assured prose that one might assume is the work of a seasoned author. The short story collection probes the lives of second-generation Chinese American women, especially focused on dating and sex — their disruptive hookups, tiring long-term relationships, their search for something meaningful. Throughout, Chau writes sexuality in a way both vivid and new, but somehow without betraying self-satisfaction (See: “Pants and skirts were shrugged, scooted down, buttonholes were stretched into O’s like gasping mouths, then relieved of their charges”), and her stories are honest and arresting. All Roads Lead to Blood will ring true to anyone who feels like they’re lingering on the path toward figuring themselves out.
The Proposal is a joy from the get-go; I was utterly enamored of protagonist Nikole before the opening scene (in which a proposal goes very, very wrong) was over. The fun doesn't end there. Nik swears off men (of course) but then she can't ignore the man who, with his sister, rescued her from that disastrous proposal, who (of course) is also hot and funny and kind and a doctor. They promise each other they'll keep it casual, but that so rarely goes as planned. With sharp banter, a well-rounded cast of characters, and plenty of swoony scenes, Jasmine Guillory defends her position as one of the most exciting rom-com writers out there.
Abby Geni's The Wildlands looks at the McCloud family, aka the "saddest family in Mercy," as they're dubbed after a tornado destroys their home and leaves them orphaned. Sisters Cora, Jane, and Darlene are struggling to survive on their limited means, and after a local factory (which experimented on animals) is bombed, their luck gets even worse. The bomber is their estranged brother Tucker — who was radicalized by the tornado and is now a believer in the soon-to-come extinction of mankind — and he returns to home to kidnap 9-year-old Cora and bring her on the lam, stopping here and there to perform more acts of destruction in the name of his cause. What follows is Cora's heartbreaking account of love, danger, and disillusionment; alongside Darlene's frantic quest to rescue her. It is a moving exploration of humanity: not only the danger of our belief in our supremacy and our power to control our environment, but also the unique power of our love for each other.
Thomas Page McBee's Amateur — which chronicles his training to be the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden — is a no-holds-barred examination of masculinity. McBee describes the journey as a way of grappling with his newish place in the world of toxic (and privileged) masculinity, by placing himself in the center of an environment that, from an outsider's point of view at least, is its pinnacle: an environment of concentrated violence, toughness, anger. It is a way of examining the effects of this culture from within it, but, too, it's a way of feeling out the boundaries of McBee's own masculinity and facing his doubts about its limits. It's also a compassionate look at what it means to be a man and the circumstances that have engendered our expectations. It is in many ways a happy dismantling of these expectations, an opening of masculinity to make room for love, support, and tenderness — something McBee is pleasantly surprised to find along the way.
In She Would Be King, debut novelist Wayétu Moore reimagines Liberia's past, building a world so clear and evocative you would swear you were in it. This version is seen from the perspectives of three characters, each blessed with (or burdened by) a supernatural gift: There's seemingly immortal Gbessa, named a witch and exiled from her home; June Dey, the product of a miraculous birth and holding otherworldly strength; and Norman Aragon, the son of a black mother and the white man who enslaved her, who can disappear. Each is drawn to Monrovia — where Africans, both indigenous tribes and those emancipated from enslavement — maintain autonomy. Connecting them all is a mysterious, omniscient spirit, who pushes them toward each other and their destination with gusts of wind. Reading She Would Be King is like being carried by that wind, too, and whisked into a darkly magical world.
What to do with Lolita in the #MeToo era? Technically brilliant, as thematically reprehensible (dare I say... icky?) as always, but perhaps less forgivably so as we look at it with a modern eye. In a riveting blend of true crime, historical investigation, and literary analysis, Sarah Weinman adds another another dimension to this already complicated context: the fact that Lolita is a story based on the very real abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948 by a man who claimed, for a year, to be her father. In The Real Lolita, Weinman honors the girl whose trauma fell into the shadow of a literary masterpiece, by placing her at the center — drawing her out, through evidence and inference, as a fully fleshed person rather than a cautionary tale, or a piece of inspiration.
In Never Ran, Never Will, Albert Samaha zooms into the pressing, complicated conversations around privilege, gentrification, and anti-blackness in America by examining them within the context of a boys football team in the high-crime and close-knit Brooklyn neighborhood Brownsville. The book follows the Mo Better Jaguars — the coaches, led by Chris Legree, and the preteen players — over the course of five years. And while the games drive the narrative, it's the way the team shapes the boys' trajectories that is most compelling. Samaha gets at this by weaving in the history of the town and its residents, the persistence of gang violence and the circumstances that enabled it, and the nationwide threats on the lives of black boys and men. That Samaha is able to give such an intimate view of this large cast of characters is a testament to his dogged reporting and his deep investment in their right to tell their stories. The result is a captivating book that will make you feel like you're right at the sidelines, breath held, rooting for the team.
(Albert Samaha is a current BuzzFeed News employee.)
Katya Apekina's breathtaking debut looks at the effects of a parent's mental illness on their children, examining it from two perspectives — as experienced during childhood, and as remembered during adulthood. In 1997, after 16-year-old Edith finds and saves her mother moments she attempts suicide, she and her younger sister Mae are sent to New York to live with their father, a successful writer who abandoned them more than a decade earlier and who is now trying to revive their relationship (but, perhaps, for not-so-honorable reasons). Alongside this timeline, we see the period as recalled by Mae. The differences between the two accounts are illuminating — we see how alliances can be formed based on what we need for survival, how forgiveness is directly related to our sense of loss, and how one's felt role in a family differs from or aligns with the role our family has given us. With The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, Apekina establishes herself as a formidable voice in fiction — a writer to keep on your radar.
Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel looks at one New Jersey suburb through two alternating timelines — the current day, as seen from the perspective of Willa Knox, a woman trying to keep her family healthy and afloat; and the 1880s as seen from progressive science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who's struggling to teach Darwinism in a community that rejects it. In both, Kingsolver examines the human tendency to fear that which challenges our beliefs. How infuriating to see those who burned effigies of Darwin, knowing what we know now (and even more infuriating when we consider the ongoing resistance of the theory of evolution, and climate change, and science in general), but she invites us to challenge that fury, too — to consider the spectrum of fear of change. We root for Willa, even though she's clinging to the mid-20th-century American dream, but she's resisting progress, too. It's in her daughter — the hippie so easily made the butt of jokes — that we see the necessity of adaptability, however uncomfortable it may be. It's hard not to leave Unsheltered without questioning our own expectations and why we're so afraid to amend them.
Sherwin Bitsui's poetry collection Dissolve is quiet and haunting, blurring the lines between the earthly and the spiritual, humanity and nature, creation and waste. With evocative imagery and language that moves so fluidly it feels like one word melts into the next, Bitsui (who grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona) leads the reader through the American Southwest, through the urban and the rural and — like the children "grunting at the bank / of one language / while the other / tethers moonlight to firelight" — everything that is tethered between the two.
Wesley Yang's debut essay collection takes its name from W. E. B. Du Bois' classic The Souls of Black Folk, which coined the term "double consciousness" to refer to the burden on black Americans to constantly consider themselves through their own eyes and through the eyes of their oppressors. Here, Yang looks at the lives of Asian Americans, in essays about the Korean American Virginia Tech shooter (and his own resentment about being asked to write about him because of their shared ethnicity), the disconnect between Asian and US education systems, Eddie Huang, and more. The collection delves, too, into analyses not explicitly about Asian Americans, looking at cultural phenomenons like pick-up artists and "hacktivists." It's Yang's cultural fluency and erudition that turn these pieces into a whole — one which will make the reader consider the world around them through a new lens.
It's the late 18th century and Marie, an odd little orphan (who will eventually become Madame Tussaud), is taken under the wing of an eccentric, reclusive wax sculptor named Curtius. When they flee to Paris, they find housing with a widow, who forbids Marie from continuing her apprenticeship under him. But when Marie catches the eye of the royals, her already charmed life gets even wilder as she moves to Versailles and watches the revolution grow around her. With Little, Edward Carey (who worked at Madame Tussauds in his younger years) has created something utterly transportive, macabre, and very, very fun. Marie's voice is captivating, and her world, especially the characters who populate it, is impossible to look away from. It's the kind of book you want to shove into the hands of all your friends, just so you have someone to gush about it with.
In her graphic memoir Passing for Human, Liana Finck (literally) illustrates the struggle of understanding our lives as a narrative, exploring her and her family's history in a series of false starts and interruptions. Each "restart" of Passing for Human adds another layer to Finck's profound inward analysis, creating a full, messy portrait of a person who's always felt on the outskirts of normalcy. Her art echoes her mind — sparse line drawings in moments of loss, dreamy scenes in moments of discovery — and in channeling her anxieties onto the page, she invites readers to join her.
When Stanley Huang discovers he's dying of pancreatic cancer, and his family — wife, ex-wife, children, and grandchildren — come together to prepare, two questions linger among them: Is he really as rich as he's always boasted? And how much of that wealth will be mine? It's a story of trust in both senses of the word, and Wang guides us effortlessly through that intertwining mess of love and resentment that only family can create. She does so against the backdrop of Silicon Valley wealth and pretensions, perfectly skewering its (and our) culture of excess.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a *force* in her provocative debut short story collection White Dancing Elephants. These stories center on women of color who resist easy categorization — a therapist who is drawn to but disgusted by her young patient, a scholar desperate to justify her affair with her terminally ill best friend's husband, a woman remembering the girlfriend she abandoned when she accepted her arranged marriage. Bhuvaneswar fully inhabits them, breathing life into their dissonant, beautiful, complete selves. Reading it is a thrill, sure to leave you breathless.
In her novella Death and Other Holidays, Marci Vogel follows 27-year-old April throughout the year following the death of her beloved stepfather, Wilson. In hypnotic and elegant prose, Vogel weaves the present and the past, exploring April's relationship with Wilson, and the gaps he filled after her father killed himself when she was 16. We see, too, how her grief morphs as she falls in and out of brief affairs with not-so-great men, how it begins to settle into something more concrete and manageable as she eventually falls in love. It's a stunning meditation on loss, love, and our powerlessness in the face of time — for better or worse, life carries on.
Reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's debut short story collection Friday Black is like being shaken awake. These stories exist in a sort of hyperreality, ordinary characters living in the not-so-unbelievable, Black Mirror–esque future of a culture that doesn't hesitate to commodify cruelty or monetize revolution. (See: "Zimmer Land," the story about an amusement park that allows guests to play-act their most violent urges.) Adjei-Brenyah skewers the ways we brush past racism and injustice, making the absurdity of the rhetoric around both impossible to ignore.
Sarah Smarsh's Kansas roots go back five generations. Her father and his family were wheat farmers, and her mother, like many of the women who came before her, got pregnant with Sarah when she was a teen. Smarsh's memoir Heartland is a poignant look at growing up in a town 30 miles from the nearest city (Wichita); learning the value and satisfaction of hard, blue-collar work, and then learning that the rest of the country see that work as something to be pitied; watching her young mother's frustration with living at the "dangerous crossroads of gender and poverty" and understanding that such a fate might be hers, too. This idea — this projection into the future — is the thread that Smarsh so gracefully weaves throughout the narrative; she addresses the hypothetical child she might or might not eventually have (an unnamed "you" throughout) and in doing so addresses all that the next generation Middle Americans living in poverty will face.
The chaotic tone of Olivia Laing's Crudo — a short novel spanning the summer of 2017 in the life of a newlywed writer — is set on page one, sentence one: "Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married." It is a novel in disarray: indecisive narrator, careering run-on sentences, moments that inspire a quick double take. This makes sense considering 2017 as a whole, and its unrelenting onslaught of war threats, diminishing resources, maddening tweets, and general global panic. For Kathy, that chaos is inescapable despite leaving New York, lying poolside, and getting married (and reminiscing about infidelity). It exists in her mind, and therefore on the page, in a novel that is equal parts brilliant and bewildering.
Kiese Laymon's memoir is a reckoning, pulling from his own experience growing up poor and black in Jackson, Mississippi, and tracking the most influential relationships, for better or worse, of his life: with his brilliant but struggling single mother, his loving grandma, his body and the ways he nurtures and punishes it, his education and creativity, and the white privilege that drives the world around him. Through this exploration — and with shrewd analysis, sharp wit, and great vulnerability — Laymon forces the reader to fully consider the effects of the nation's inability to reconcile its pride and ambition with its shameful history.