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15 Books From Smaller Presses You Won't Be Able To Put Down

From moving short stories to hilarious memoirs.

Posted on November 3, 2020, at 11:45 a.m. ET

Directory by Christopher Linforth (Otis Books, out now)

Siblings drive across the country, stealing from gas stations, staying in haunted houses, and butchering goats in this short story collection. Strikingly written and told with urgency, Directory is laced with a sense of longing as the siblings, who are shaped and driven by their traumatic memories, try to find a way to reconcile their painful relationship with their family.

A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt (Two Dollar Radio, out now)

Topically wide-ranging, the essays in Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut memoir challenge the history and ongoing brutality of colonialism and offer a perspective on grief, love, and queerness. While writing personal, intimate details, Belcourt also puts his essays in context with texts from writers like Judith Butler, Terese Marie Mailhot, and José Esteban Muñoz. Academically rigorous and linguistically beautiful, A History of My Brief Body is a captivating, genre-defying book.

Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession by Marcia Trahan (Barrelhouse, out now)

Trahan, who is in remission for cancer and has depression and suicidal ideation, shares her experiences with navigating the healthcare system as a woman and links these to true crime narratives, which are overwhelmingly consumed by women. Though she and her husband are voracious readers, Trahan also writes of how the television, in many ways, sits at the center of their lives: children of alcoholic parents, they both grew up using the TV as an escape into representations of normalcy, and together, they work hard at building a life that makes sense to them both. An evocative debut.

Born to Be Public by Greg Mania (Clash Books, out now)

A raucous ride through the NYC club scene and early adulthood, this memoir follows debut author Greg Mania as he comes of age as a gay man and makes a lot of mistakes. From describing cringeworthy encounters with crushes to translating nightlife lingo, Mania’s voice is that of the hilarious best friend you wish you had. Yet, while the book is laugh-out-loud funny, it avoids being flippant — there’s a lot of humanity in these pages, and it’s a humanity that Mania renders with both tenderness and hilarity.

The Incredible Shrinking Woman by Athena Dixon (Split/Lip Press, out now)

Unconsummated physical encounters, hookup chat lines, and Skype sex punctuate Athena Dixon’s debut essay collection that is equal parts homage to longing, a warning about violence against women, and an extraordinarily frank study of how the shape of Dixon’s body has influenced the space she occupies. Growing up in a small Midwestern town, Dixon is taught to stay invisible. In the title essay, she recounts her unspoken rage at another fat passenger who is not actively trying to make herself appear to be smaller. “Be a respectable fat woman,” Dixon wants to say, but does not. A stunning debut.

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations by Tara Isabel Zambrano (Okay Donkey Press, out now)

In this collection of imaginative short fiction, women marry on the moon, a heart lives outside the body, and a girl plays video games with God after school. Despite often having settings or topics that fall into the speculative category, Zambrano’s stories feature characters that also struggle with all-too-familiar challenges like infertility, cultural expectations, and suicide. Largely a book about human connections, both broken and formed, Death, Desire, and Other Destinations shows Zambrano as a writer of promise.

Like a Bird by Fariha Róisín (Unnamed Press, out now)

In a family where she has never felt that she belonged, Taylia Chatterjee fails out of college as she longs for love and mourns the death of her sister. Her parents are intellectual but distant. After she is sexually assaulted by a friend of the family on what she thought was a date, Taylia's father tosses her out of their Manhattan home and she is forced to make her own way in New York. And she finds a way to face what her family will not. Written with an undercurrent of anger, the novel offers a biting social commentary on wealthy, educated elites.

Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories by Donna Miscolta (Jaded Ibis Press, out now)

Angie Rubio is an awkward girl and then an awkward teenager who struggles to find a way to fit in against a changing historical backdrop that spans from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Part of a Mexican American military family, Angie moves between different bases, schools, and friends in Hawaii and California as these thirteen stories chronicle each year of her education. A thoughtful look at growing up while trying to block out messages of conformity, Angie Rubio’s story ends with her ultimately finding her voice and learning how to use it.

Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau (Coffeehouse Press, out now)

Fifteen-year-old Monk lives in Chinatown with her unpredictable father, a former art teacher, and begins to hang out with another teenager, a 19-year-old aspiring painter who goes by Santa Coy. When her father and the younger man start to form a bond — and Monk, craving connection and love, is left cleaning up the studio — her jealousy flares up. A novel told in fragments, Pink Mountain has all the anxiety of a teenage diary, but Lau brings in elements of noir, sharp observations, and lush description that elevate this novel well above angst.

The Grammar of Untold Stories by Lois Ruskai Melina (Shanti Arts, out now)

Divided into three sections — family, work, home — this collection contains sixteen meditative essays that offer a look at Melina’s life, from traveling to New York during the height of the AIDS crisis to look for her missing nephew to her experiences with adoption and the heartbreak that is caring for dying parents. Melina is talented at writing through uncertainty with an assuredness, and her work expertly blends the lyrical and the journalistic.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia University Press, out now)

A teenage girl mistakes her mother’s lover for God, two female friends celebrate every New Year’s Eve with champagne and sex while one insists she wants a husband, and women find companionship — and sometimes even love — among men in hospitals, at work conferences, and in secret. This collection of nine stories is linked by themes of desire and disappointment among Black women who are connected to the church. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, is an extremely nuanced and insightful debut.

Mannequin and Wife by Jen Fawkes (LSU Press, out now)

This collection is richly imagined, featuring stories about circus performers and twins. Fawkes has structured this collection, lengthier than the average debut, with a mix of long and short stories, all of which show her range as a writer. An engaging book by an accomplished writer.

A Good Map of All Things by Alberto Álvaro Ríos (University of Arizona Press, out now)

Billed as a “picaresque” novel — a style that typically follows a rogue or antihero and often has some elements of satire — A Good Map is set in the borderlands of Arizona and Sonora. The people in this fictional, small Mexican town are incorrigible gossips, true believers, and utterly charming. This is a book that feels like a classic, with characters who feel like family.

Love's Garden by Nandini Bhattacharya (Aubade Publishing, out now)

“Love is an enigma, but marriage is serious business,” writes Bhattacharya in this novel that spans three decades and three generations of women in India under British colonial rule. The book deftly confronts how, for these women, marriage is often an escape route and the only pathway to having a home of their own. Though the setting is somewhat historical, spanning both world wars and the turbulent backdrop of the Indian independence movement, the novel is a timeless story of redemption.

Censorettes by Elizabeth Bales Frank (Stonehouse Originals, out Nov. 5)

Whip-smart Lucy Barrett is sent away from England by her father after her mother is killed in the 1940 bombing of London, and isolated on the island of Bermuda, she has a job as a censor for letters that pass between the US and Europe. A Shakespeare aficionado, plucky Lucy uses her knowledge of the Bard to help crack a code. Yet, when tragedy befalls a friend, she is faced with the decision of her life. ●

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