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Coil Quake Rift by Nathan Elias (Montag Press)
Four lives come together in this literary science fiction novel that is anchored in contemporary California. Knox, Tiffany, Margot, and Jason are tangled in desire, infidelity, and obsession even before a portal to alternate worlds, by way of a massive sinkhole, opens up in Venice Beach. As they follow a strange girl into the abyss, they all must make choices about the world they want to live in, though the idea of a firm reality is tenuous as best. As they come to realize it is Tiffany, a brilliant astrophysicist, who has made access to different planes possible — creating the sinkhole and sending the girl in the first place — the other three must understand how they fit into Tiffany’s version of the universe, and, ultimately, find a way out of it. It’s beautifully written and artfully imagined.
Dear Damage by Ashley Marie Farmer (Sarabande Books)
Underpinning this essay collection is the death of Farmer’s grandmother, who suffers a catastrophic accident that leaves her paralyzed. While she is still in the hospital, Farmer’s grandfather, honoring his wife’s wish to die, fatally shoots her in the chest and tries to turn the gun on himself but does not succeed. What follows are essays about gun culture, violence, and what it means to die in America. But Farmer also takes a hard look at what it means to live; there are delightful passages of transcripts made from taped interviews of her grandparents reminiscing. There are also Farmer’s own questions about teaching and writing while stringing together adjunct jobs in order to barely make rent, complicated untanglings of family histories and mental health, and examinations of relationships, from the platonic to the romantic. Dear Damage, an open letter to demons of the past, still gives plenty of space for connection and joy.
My Volcano by John Elizabeth Stintzi (Two Dollar Radio)
When a volcano pops up seemingly at random in Central Park, a cadre of characters have to reckon with what it means to have the landscape of an iconic city altered. For some, it’s scientific: Does the rock mass truly meet the criteria of a volcano? For others, it’s emotional: Displaced in the city, they wander between refugee camps and try to understand how to go forward. In this novel, Stintzi explores cultural, geographical, personal, and emotional relationships. In tandem, themes of global society, technology, and the digital disconnect of modern life punctuate the book with a resonant insight. My Volcano is a gorgeous unpacking of what it means to live as the world changes around us in ways we don’t always understand.
An Encyclopedia of Bending Time by Kristin Keane (Barrelhouse Books)
In writing about the loss of her mother, Keane achieves something like a mashup of Jorge Luis Borges’s — fantastical encyclopedia entries via the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge and a choose-your-own-adventure story. Constructed out of a constellation of alphabetically arranged mini-essays, sometimes with subcategories, the memoir looks at how time works both scientifically and emotionally, and how it’s portrayed in popular culture, like in the television program Quantum Leap. As much as it includes considerations of the works of philosophers and scientists, An Encyclopedia of Bending Time avoids making grief academic. It’s a work that is unconventional in a way that illuminates what is possible when a writer is not bound to convention.
Stay Gone Days by Steve Yarbrough (Ig Publishing)
Mississippi-born sisters Ella and Caroline Cole have divergent paths that stray even further after a family tragedy. On the surface, it looks like Ella chooses a more conventional life that ultimately affords her privilege outside of Boston, while Caroline bounces across the West and eventually leaves America altogether. As the story unfolds, it becomes clearer that even supposedly safe choices are sometimes dangerous, and that distance is not enough when the past is left unreconciled. Wrapped in the heartbreak of a cleaved family, Yarbrough’s latest is tender toward the Cole sisters and the people they love. Stay Gone Days is a meditation on blood and chosen family and the complicated, if beautiful, space where the two intersect.
The Distortions by Christopher Linforth (Orison Books)
Set in the aftermath of the 1992 dissolution of Yugoslavia and the decade of ethnic conflict and nationalist violence that followed, The Distortions tracks how people impacted by ongoing war keep living their lives. The opening stories paint a grim but familiar picture — a chain-smoking uncle struggling with alcoholism in Višegrad makes an uneasy truce with his nephew from Brooklyn, a middle-aged man in Dubrovnik catfishes a young woman, a philandering husband from outside Zagreb suspects an old family friend is likely the father of his daughter but fails to understand the irony. The collection builds from there as characters paint, sculpt, and move to new cities across Europe and the US. There is an effective tension in The Distortions between staying in a country with a troubled past and choosing a new country with its own troubled past. This richly textured collection reminds us of the tether to our geographical homes.
Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory, and Family by Madhushree Ghosh (University of Iowa Press)
In this memoir, Ghosh is the architect of a cultural, familial, and political history through the lens of food. She uses the same care in writing of a touching Diwali celebration she hosts in San Diego as when she tells of a young Sikh man whose shop is burned in the riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. She memorializes her parents through food — going to the fish market with her father, remembering how her mother prepared the fish — and throughout the arc of the book, Ghosh asks what it means to be of one place yet living in another, whether as a Bengali living in Delhi or as a South Indian on the West Coast of America. Ghosh braids the American ideas of Indian cuisine against the connection she forges with a local Indian restaurant that caters to Californians looking for chicken curry; she also pairs the colonial history of tea with the ubiquity of masala chai. She is at her best when she writes of her “now ex,” a man whose family she once tried to impress, only to have a battle of ghee with her “now ex” mother-in-law, and, later, a battle over marital assets with the ex himself. While Khabaar is a food memoir, it is also much more than that: It is the story of a woman who learns to find a seat at her own table.
Face by Jaspreet Singh (Brindle and Glass)
Lila, a science journalist who covers climate change, has a particular recall of other people’s faces. Never at the top of her cohort, Lila is better at uncovering stories than digging for fossils. Long after immigrating to Canada, she sees a man’s face that she recognizes from her past. By then a successful staff writer at an important magazine in Toronto, she uncovers a story of an unethical professor at her alma mater who is linked to the untimely death of her close friend. While she explores her feelings in a creative writing class, where the assignment is to write a novella, her situation becomes more complicated. Face is an interwoven novel that takes readers on a series of journeys. At its core, it’s an exploration of climate anxiety and how individual people address or ignore facts — and whether we can trust what we see with our own eyes.
Mirror Made of Rain by Naheed Phiroze Patel (Unnamed Press)
Growing up in the upper-class town of Kamalpur in eastern India, Noomi Wadia struggles to win the affection of her misunderstood mother, who is struggling with alcoholism, though she has a mostly positive relationship with her father. Despite the disdain she has for her mother’s drinking, Noomi finds herself gripped by her own addiction that often leads to destructive behavior, even after she leaves for Mumbai and launches a successful career in journalism. She cannot escape the ingrained family dynamics, whether it’s the patriarchal customs that make her simmer with resentment or the anger she feels toward her mother and grandparents. It is not until she makes her own family that Noomi begins to understand how she fits in, what she can control, and what she cannot. Told over a young woman’s lifetime, Patel’s Mirror Made of Rain is a stunning novel of growth, reconciliation, and the power of learning to see ourselves through our own eyes.
Test Drive by Patrick McGinty (Propeller Books)
Pegs and her coworkers Anna and Leah are among a handful of women who work at a driverless car startup. They build a loose alliance based on their mutual need for more money, and they skim parts out of the startup’s garage to sell. Set in the not-so-distant future, Test Drive shows a climate change–impacted Pittsburgh that is on the verge of being underwater from storm surges that never stop. All-too-familiar supply chain disruptions exacerbated by the weather and a precarious economic situation encourage the three women to push their scheme further. Test Drive is a wild ride of a novel that perfectly captures the anxieties of contemporary America, be they economic or environmental.
I Feel Love: Notes on Queer Joy, edited by Samantha Mann (Read Furiously)
From Greg Mania’s laugh-out-loud funny “Permanent Record” to Aly Patel’s deeply serious “Not All Lesbians Are White,” the 11 essays and two poems in this collection trace experiences of queer writers as they seek to find reconciliation, and, ultimately, as the title indicates, joy out of often challenging circumstances. Collected and edited by essayist Samantha Mann, what’s striking about this anthology is both the diversity in voices and styles and the impact of the short form. Most of the selections run fewer than 15 pages, and some even shorter still. Danny Roy recounts how to date in Mormon conversion therapy, Esther Mollica writes of the all-ages club Faith in San Francisco, and Sara Sugar-Anyanwu tells how figure skating provided the perfect smoke screen for an eating disorder and reinforced heteronormative messages. I Feel Love is an important contribution to coming-of-age literature.
Now Lila Knows by Elizabeth Nunez (Akashic Books)
Lila Bonnard is an accomplished academic. She holds a teaching position at her Caribbean university but leaves her home school — and fiancé — to accept a temporary appointment at a small college in Vermont. On the day she arrives, she witnesses an all-too-American murder of a Black man by white police officers. As she tries to understand this particular brand of American racism, she also must understand how she relates to her fiancé, who is still on her home island and does not want her to get involved in the trial. As a visiting professor, she has obligations to her employer — but as a person, she also has obligations to herself. Now Lila Knows is one woman’s confrontation of the responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing, even when the person she loves most is telling her not to. This is a story of a woman finding her voice — and in that, her power.
What Are You by Lindsay Lerman (Clash Books)
Though this is written almost exclusively to address the you referenced in the title (and this you is many different people), it doesn’t feel quite accurate to call this a collection of essays. What Are You is also certainly not fiction. Rather, it feels more like a way of uncovering questions without regard for genre. As Lerman writes toward some kind of answer, or a multitude of answers, it is the speaker’s voice that becomes the most present. Readers never get a consistent name or a full picture of her, really, but it doesn’t matter. Across the collection, the emotional resonance is strong. In contrast to the underwater, dreamlike feeling of many of the sections, there is always a sharp undercurrent or even a rip tide of desire. Hypnotizing and inventive.
Kids in America: A Gen X Reckoning: by Liz Prato (Santa Fe Writers Project)
In three sections, Prato explores what coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s meant to her. The reach is wide, from her experiences attending a Denver prep school to an essay written from the collective voice of women who were groomed and abused as students by a teacher at Prato’s school. Reading the essays in Kids in America feels like talking to an old friend with whom there are no secrets; this book is made up of the stuff of life. There is trauma, there is heartbreak. There are also anchors in time, like watching 90210 and Degrassi Junior High. The final two essays are trademark Prato. She is a writer who can put into context for readers both the death of her brother and the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Even as heavy as this collection can be, her writing soars in a narrative of survival and a deep examination of privilege.
Gag Reflex by Elle Nash (Clash Books)
Lucy is a graduating senior with an eating disorder who finds community in the mid-2000s LiveJournal ecosystem. Incorporating AIM transcripts, calorie-tracking lists, and online entries, Gag Reflex becomes an intimate portrait of a young woman who is struggling with her feelings of self-worth but also fighting really hard to manage her relationships with food and life. What’s so effective about Nash’s use of blogging and instant messaging in this work of fiction is how she captures the immediacy of digital communication to show how much people truly need connection. It’s in Lucy’s online journal where her self-awareness shines through; her IRL interactions are sometimes less nuanced. Gag Reflex is just as striking in its use of form as it is in empathy.
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (Tin House)
This collection of linked short stories follows David, a young man and member of the Penobscot Indigenous tribe who lives in a Native island community in Maine. The 12 stories are at once humane and brutal. In one, David hits a friend so hard with a bag full of beer cans, he is worried the other man may be dead. He goes back the next day to help, but also to find the beers that spilled from the bag. Talty writes with an assured sense of what poverty, drug addiction, and the fracturing of families do to people and their communities. He also writes with an equally assured sense of how the ways we care for one another can cut through trauma. Night of the Living Rez does what the best linked collections do: Its stories are wonderfully crafted works in their own right but carry the weight of a novel when read together. It’s a powerful debut from a new voice in fiction.
Unwieldy Creatures by Addie Tsai (Jaded Ibis Press, Aug. 2)
Dr. Frank, a renowned researcher, and her lab intern Plum have a shared background of secret loves, unsupportive families, and a keen interest in science. Both queer and biracial, they form a fast connection after Dr. Frank experiences a crisis. They begin to tell one another their origin stories. In each, there is the heartbreak of growing up in hostile families and the pain of misgendering. What Plum cannot predict is a third story intertwined: the being whom Dr. Frank has created in the laboratory. This person is a culmination of Dr. Frank’s life’s work and a threat in equal measure. In this retelling of Frankenstein, Tsai reimagines Mary Shelley’s defining work with depth. While Tsai nods to the original epistolary format via oral history, the resulting Unwieldy Creatures is in itself a true original and a perfect example of a flip from a historical classic to a contemporary one. ●