Small Joys by Elvin James Mensah
This funny and bighearted debut is an ode to queer friendship and chosen family. Set in small-town England in 2005, it centers on the life-changing friendship between two new flatmates. Harley is a Black, gay, aspiring music journalist who’s just dropped out of uni; he’s dealing with a lot of familial anti-gay discrimination on top of his anxiety and depression. Muddy is a white dude who loves rugby and birding and exudes cheerfulness, kindness, and hilarity — all the things that Harley feels are out of his reach. The story unfolds quietly and without much fanfare as Harley and Muddy slowly open up to each other and discover a deep connection neither of them expected. Mensah writes hilarious, true-to-life dialogue and has a particular talent for capturing the small and often overlooked moments that so often define friendships. He tackles loneliness, mental health, anti-gay discrimination, and suicidal ideation with care. There’s therapy and characters with big growth arcs and birding expeditions and plenty of karaoke. It’s as fun as it is thoughtful: a tender and generous novel about finding your people, getting vulnerable, and celebrating every joy — big or small. —Laura Sackton
No Edges: Swahili Stories edited by Sarah Coolidge
This innovative, Africanfuturist short story collection presents eight stories translated from Swahili by East African writers from Tanzania and Kenya. In “The Guest” by Fatma Shafii, a young woman invites her lover to meet her family, but is her lover a real person or a figment of her imagination? Other stories tell of trips to the demonic realm ( “A Neighbor’s Pot” by Lusajo Mwaikenda Israel), psychedelic dreams of a future without humans (“Nakuruto” by Clara Momanyi), carceral spaceships “Walenisi” by Katama G. C. Mkangi), and so much more. The collection is beautifully bound with vivid graphics before each story. It’s a fascinating, much-needed collection. —Margaret Kingsbury
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Pomegranate by Helen Elaine Lee
Ranita Atwater has just finished serving a four-year prison sentence for drug possession, and she’s determined to build a joyful life for herself — to stay clean, reunite with her kids, and repair her broken relationship with her aunts. Much of Ranita’s day-to-day existence is taken up with the logistics of survival: going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, therapy sessions, and check-ins with her DCF caseworker. With heartbreaking immediacy, Lee captures the inhumane realities of incarceration and the seemingly endless obstacles faced by people trying to rebuild their lives after being released from prison. Though this novel is often bleak, it’s not hopeless or gratuitous. Lee writes beautifully about the healing power of Black kin networks, queer love, community support systems, and literature. Ranita is a Black queer woman who’s been failed over and over again — by men, by racist institutions and unjust laws, by systems designed to degrade her — but she steadfastly refuses to make herself smaller. — Laura Sackton
Advika and the Hollywood Wives by Kirthana Ramisetti
Twenty-six-year-old Advika Srinivasan dreamed of screenwriting, but reluctantly gave in to a life of catering to the Hollywood elite after a family tragedy. At one of these events, she meets Julian Zelding, a successful producer who — despite the 41-year age gap — woos her into a whirlwind romance that ends in marriage. But when Julian’s first wife dies, she leaves behind a strange will: She’ll bestow Advika $1 million and a single mysterious film reel — but only if Advika divorces Julian first. Advika throws herself into investigating her new husband through the eyes of his ex-wives, realizing how little she truly knows about him. Ramisetti excels at holding back just enough to keep you furiously turning the pages looking for answers in this mystery-meets-romance. —Kirby Beaton
Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh
This World Fantasy Award winner’s debut novel is military space opera at its finest. The Majoda have almost wiped out humanity, and the last remnants survive on Gaea Station. Before the Majoda destroyed Earth, gene-altering created a class of warriors. Teenaged Kyr is one such warrior and has trained all her life for retaliation against the Majoda. She hates the Majoda and has been conditioned to believe her life has no purpose beyond revenge. She’s number one in her class, so she’s shocked when she’s assigned to the Nursery to bear children instead of to combat. Her brother Mags has been assigned away from the station, where he will undoubtedly die. Instead of following her orders, Kyr decides to sneak out of Gaea Station and save her brother. However, the world outside the station is different than what she’s been led to believe and causes her to question everything she’s been taught. This brilliant, queer space opera combines smart world building with nuanced explorations of gender, fascism, racism, and more. —M.K.
The Cleaving by Juliet E. McKenna
Told from the perspective of Nimue, McKenna centers the lives of women in Arthurian legend as they try to maintain their agency in ancient England. Like Merlin, Nimue is one of the hidden people, but unlike Merlin, she keeps to the hidden people’s traditions and tries to hide her magic from mortals. When the novel opens, she’s Ygraine’s handmaiden, and Arthur is yet to be born. She knows Merlin is scheming something but could never imagine that scheming would lead to her mistress’s forced marriage and sexual assault. Once Arthur comes into power, Nimue also serves his half-sister Morgana and his wife, Queen Guinevere. McKenna’s powerful feminist reimagining provides a different spin on these women’s choices as they wrest control over their lives in a patriarchal world. —M.K.
Untethered Sky by Fonda Lee
Lee follows up her phenomenal Green Bone Saga trilogy with this fantastic stand-alone epic fantasy novella that feels like a classic folktale. When Ester was 13 years old, her mother and baby brother were killed in a manticore attack, leaving her and her father grief-stricken. While her father descends into painful silence, Ester wants to take action and do something with her grief. She joins the King’s Royal Mews, where giant rocs are teamed up with human ruhkers and trained to hunt and kill manticores. She’s paired with a fledgling roc named Zahra, and after their apprenticeship, the two join the empire’s most dangerous manticore hunt. Untethered Sky is an evocative, emotional novella you’ll want to finish in a single sitting because it’s just that good. —M.K.
Lying In by Elizabeth Metzger
In her second full-length collection, Metzger explores pregnancy, motherhood, grief, and bodily transformation. There’s a sparse formality to these poems, with their elegant imagery and philosophical musings, but they are also deeply human and grounded in the body. Blurring the boundaries between past and future, Metzger writes about the strangeness and wonder of creating new life and the contradictions inherent in being a new parent (exhaustion and elation, joy and confusion, overwhelming fear and profound love). The question at the heart of the collection isn’t only how to mother, but how to be mothered. How does a body change when a person becomes a mother? How does a body change when a person becomes a child? “All children grow into questions,” writes Metzger in “Mother Nothing,” and many of these poems feel like questions, too — the kind you want to linger in. This is a moving, vulnerable book and a welcome addition to the growing canon of complicated literature about motherhood. —L.S.
Nomenclatures of Invisibility by Mahtem Shiferraw
These beautiful poems trace complicated paths across the globe, mapping the blurry intersections of migration, language, body, belonging, and home. Shiferraw’s poems move through her own history, as well as the history of her family and her homelands, Ethiopia and Eritrea, naming these places and stories beyond colonial and imperial understandings of borders and geography. This is a lyrical, melancholic, and deeply vulnerable book. —L.S.
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You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir by Maggie Smith
After Smith's 2016 poem “Good Bones” was published just after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida, she enjoyed a kind of public acclaim unusual for a poet. But this change created a rift in her relationship with her husband, a lawyer who she met in a creative writing class in college. They eventually divorce. The reasons for the divorce, the grief, and the visceral sense of loss drive this elliptical, inquisitive book. Smith examines the hints of rupture and foreshadowing over the course of their relationship (“I had an anxiety attack on my honeymoon”) with honesty and vulnerability while declaring plainly in the prologue that “this isn’t a tell-all.” She writes in short chapters, some only a sentence long. That structure helps inform the nature of this memoir, which doesn’t chart chronologically through their relationship, but takes on different formats; sometimes she’s a character in a play, sometimes she’s answering questions from an invisible, nosy reader. The result is a refreshing entry in the divorce memoir canon. —Tomi Obaro
Our Brave Foremothers: Celebrating 100 Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous Women Who Changed the Course of History by Rozella Kennedy, illustrated by Joelle Avelino
This beautifully done biography collection is one that teens and adults will love and learn from. Inspired by her own foremothers and the friendships in her life, Kennedy has compiled a collection of 100 Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous women who have made a mark on US history. She includes biographies of both well-known women and women you may have never heard of, like Bernadita Camacho-Dungca, who helped preserve the Chamorro language, and Grace Lee Boggs, who championed many causes at the grassroots level, including urban gardens and environmental groups. Each profile gives a short but detailed overview of the woman’s life and what they did and also provides a prompt to encourage the reader to incorporate the specific activism discussed into their own life or think more deeply about how these topics show up in life, making a connection to the woman being discussed. It’s a must-add to any shelf. —Jaime Herndon
Ab(solutely) Normal: Short Stories That Smash Mental Health Stereotypes edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen
In this powerful and essential anthology, editors Nora Shalaway Carpenter (The Edge of Anything) and Rocky Callen (A Breath Too Late) collect short stories that center mental health by 16 young adult authors, such as Nikki Grimes (Bronx Masquerade), Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo in the Real World), Isabel Quintero (Gabi, a Girl in Pieces), Alechia Dow (The Sound of Stars), and more. After each story, the author describes their own experiences with the mental health condition described, and the back matter includes further resources for teens. Stories portray characters with PTSD, depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more. In Quintero’s “Back of the Truck,” María experiences a panic attack when she goes to a nightclub with friends. James Bird’s “River Boy” depicts a friendship that blooms between an Ojibwe high school sophomore who can’t stop crying and a Mexican girl who is a notorious school troublemaker. These stories are really lovely with a wide variety of genres, from thrillers to plays to fantasy. Each one is as excellent as the next. —M.K.
Harvest House by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Smith’s genre-bending companion novel to the beloved Hearts Unbroken is a deliciously spooky adventure teen audiences will devour. Hughie Wolfe (Mvskoke) is volunteering at a new Halloween attraction called Harvest House. But after he learns that it features a character described as the vengeful spirit of an “Indian maiden,” he becomes unsettled by the organizer’s stereotypical and offensive choices and tries to figure out when to speak up. All the while, strange things are happening near Harvest House, and Hughie and his friends decide to investigate whether a haunting is truly taking place. —Rachel Strolle
The Making of Yolanda la Bruja by Lorraine Avila
Dominican American student Yolanda is looking forward to her upcoming initiation into her family’s bruja tradition when she suddenly starts having visions of violence. They all seem to center on a new white student at her high school, the son of a politician with a past containing racist incidents and a present causing problems in the activist group at school, the Brave Space Club. Yolanda has to do her best to grapple with her visions and stop a tragedy before it begins. Vividly imagined and nuanced, Yolanda’s story is one not to be missed. —R.S.
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