21 Great Books From Small Presses To Read Now
Here are 21 books from small presses to get you through lockdown and beyond.
Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich (Two Dollar Radio; out now)
This tightly woven feminist novel is a deep exploration of womanhood spanning decades, continents, and digital spaces. Beginning in Prague as communism is crumbling, the novel follows three women — Jana, Zorka, and Aimée — over time as they grow from children to adults. These women’s stories carry a sense of interconnectedness, and Yelena Moskovich’s characters cross paths in both expected and unexpected ways. Ultimately, Virtuoso is a moving book that defies categorization.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (Dzanc Books; out now)
In a place where snow is always falling, Henna sequesters herself after the death of her parents and twin sister. Grappling with grief, she finds a dead woman on her property and begins to unspool a mystery that goes back to the late 1800s Franklin expedition into the Arctic. In a novel punctuated by cold and even desperation, Tina May Hall turns this into a page-turner.
Many Restless Concerns by Gayle Brandeis (Black Lawrence Press; out now)
Many Restless Concerns, a historical novel, tells the stories of the victims of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a real-life serial killer who lived in Hungary during the 16 and 17th centuries. The book alternates between first-person perspectives, using a chorus of the over 600 young women and girls murdered by the countess. While the voices are fictionalized, Gayle Brandeis draws on what is known about the terror of the era, and this book offers a historical context to contemporary violence against women.
Welcome to Wherever We Are by Deborah J. Cohan (Rutgers University Press; out now)
This memoir of caretaking unspools so many of the complicated emotions wrapped up in helping a parent as they die. Writing about taking care of her father, Deborah J. Cohan details the realities of what it means to get sick and the toll it takes on the people around the ill person. A compassionate narrative, the book shows us how life doesn’t stop when we are providing care to sick loved ones — it only gets trickier.
Truth Has a Different Shape by Kari O’Driscoll (CavanKerry Press; out now)
This memoir unwinds one woman’s reckoning with her family. In the opening pages, a young Kari O’Driscoll attempts to make things easier for her family after a divorce and the loss of a sibling — an adopted brother who is sent back to the agency — tear her household apart. The pain of a child dealing with loss is palpable. Yet, as years progress in Truth Has a Different Shape, we follow O’Driscoll as she discovers how to heal herself.
Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land by Noé Álvarez (Catapult; out now)
This memoir tells the incredible story of a young working-class man in agricultural Washington state who achieves a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious private school and gives it up to join indigenous runners on a trek from Alaska to Argentina. Noé Álvarez joins the group for his part of the run in British Columbia, and it’s a hard journey. The crew and the other runners are not always welcoming, and each participant logs marathon distances daily on little food and sleep. Álvarez’s writing is vibrant and immediate.
Don’t You Know I Love You by Laura Bogart (Dzanc Books; out now)
After a car accident lands Angelina Moltisanti in a cast and she can’t work, she is forced to return to her parents’ home in this novel. To complicate matters, Angelina is an emerging painter — but until her wrist heals, she finds herself without a creative outlet, frustrated as her father relentlessly pursues an insurance settlement. As Angelina nurtures a relationship with another artist, recovers, and starts showing some of her own work, she must find a way to reconcile her anger or risk losing the woman who she loves.
Edie on the Green Screen by Beth Lisick (7.13 Books; out now)
An aging It girl grapples with her mother’s death in Beth Lisick’s debut novel. Edie Wonderlich hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. She doesn’t have a cellphone or an email address, and she still works a bartending job in the Mission District in San Francisco and lives in a warehouse. But when her mother dies — leaving a Palo Alto ranch home to Edie just as the warehouse finally becomes truly unlivable — she has no choice but to move to Silicon Valley. Residing in her childhood home as her brother tries to fix it up to sell it, Edie tries to process her grief. Lisick captures some of how tech money has changed formerly sleepy suburbs and writes about the nuances of female friendship with a razor-sharp focus.
The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky (University of Massachusetts Press; out now)
The brain of an Alzheimer’s patient can weigh as little as 30% of a healthy brain, we learn in Elizabeth Kadetsky’s memoir. The writer dives into the decline of her mother and the impact of her dementia, which sets off a broader interrogation of intergenerational trauma, the author’s own physical assault, a sister experiencing homelessness, addiction in families, and what it means to be nostalgic. Deeply sympathetic and smartly crafted, The Memory Eaters is a cautionary tale about what it means to ignore or forget the past.
Things We’ll Need for the Coming Difficulties by Valerie Vogrin (Willow Springs Books; out now)
There’s a strong sense of movement in this wonderfully concise short story collection, which ranges from ennui-fueled road trips to research trips to the Galápagos. Valerie Vogrin’s short stories are masterful in the way she handles perspective, bringing readers close to her characters. Each story vibrates with a sense of something just about to go wrong — or just about to go right; Vogrin’s gift is keeping the tension buzzing either way.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, (Europa Editions; out now)
Breasts and Eggs is an intimate look at three women's lives, fears, and hopes. Two sisters, Natsu and Makiko, are bonded by the shared poverty in their early lives after their mother’s death; Makiko is a single mother to Midoriko, who for much of the book refuses to speak but is given a voice through diary entries. In this novel, Mieko Kawakami deftly captures the anxiety of performing gender, while asking tough questions about class and the expectations of women.
Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (The Overlook Press; out now)
In the aftermath of her suicide attempt, Mina and her husband Oscar relocate to London from New York City for a fresh start as he takes on a new role in his father’s company in this sophomore novel by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Mina needs to work on her book about women in mythology, but she has questions about her own sexuality and marriage. In this heartfelt book about a struggling young couple, Buchanan surfaces the many ways in which love can be complicated.
Iditarod Nights by Cindy Hiday (Ooligan Press; out now)
In this romance novel, Claire Stanfield is a lawyer who needs a break after an extremely challenging case. Ever the overachiever, she decides to train for and run the Iditarod, the 938-mile dogsled race that takes place annually in Alaska. Yet, Claire’s singular focus on just finishing the journey and returning to her practice is interrupted by a budding relationship with Dillon Cord, another musher and former cop who has a past. Iditarod Nights is a fresh take on the romance genre, and Cindy Hiday gives this just enough tension to make for good reading.
Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of a Life by Ruby McConnell (Overcup Press; out now)
In spring 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted with violent force, a dramatic and deadly event that created an economic and environmental crisis and deeply influenced those living in the Pacific Northwest. In Ground Truth, writer and scientist Ruby McConnell shows how geologic forces impact our lives, be they massive volcano eruptions or a ruptured oil storage tank leaking into the water supply of an elementary school. She weaves her personal history into these essays, creating a moving collection that will be satisfying to readers who enjoy both science and memoirs.
What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers by Jessica Pearce Rotondi (Unnamed Press, April 21)
After her mother’s death, writer Jessica Pearce Rotondi discovered boxes of letters, clippings, and some declassified CIA reports that document her family’s search for her uncle Jack, whose Air Force plane disappeared during the so-called Secret War conducted by the United States in Laos between 1964 and 1973. As Rotondi retraces her grandfather’s 1973 journey across Southeast Asia in search of his son, she hunts for her own answers about her mother, her grandfather, the uncle she never knew, and herself.
The Book of Anna by Carmen Boullosa, translated from Spanish by Samantha Schnee (Coffee House Press, April 25)
Something of a retelling of Anna Karenina, presented in parallel with stories and characters that were not part of Tolstoy’s 1878 novel, The Book of Anna is also an imagining of the book that Anna herself was working on in the novel. Anna had refused to show her work to a publisher because it was unfinished. Readers of Tolstoy will recognize famous scenes from Anna Karenina, but Carmen Boullosa tips the notion of fiction on its head. Set on the eve of the Russian Revolution, The Book of Anna is told in a rich, unique style.
Beauty by Christina Chiu (2040 Books, May 1)
Amy Wong is an aspiring fashion designer of some promise who chooses being a wife and mother over her career in this second novel by Christina Chiu. It’s a difficult decision complicated by the fact that her husband, who has industry connections, doesn’t support her desire to work in the fashion industry. Juggling between caring for a neurodiverse child and navigating a struggling marriage, Beauty is a story of perseverance.
K: A Novel by Ted O’Connell (Santa Fe Writers Project, May 1)
An American-born college professor, Francis Kauffman, is accused of spreading dissent among his students at a Chinese university. Hauled off to a violent prison and stuffed into a filthy, crowded cell, Kauffman does his best to keep stay alive — and sane — amid grueling forced labor, unspeakable conditions, and deadly assignments from the guards. This compelling debut novel is an intricate portrait of a man trying to hold on to his own humanity while he grapples with the fact that he will likely never leave the walls of Kun Chong Prison.
Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life by Howard Steven Friedman (University of California Press, May 5)
In this timely — and, frankly, sometimes shocking — book, Howard Steven Friedman, a noted health economist, gives a detailed account of how the value of human life is calculated by corporations, governments, insurance companies, and other bureaucracies. Using models from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, conviction and death rates in the criminal justice system, and life insurance practices, Ultimate Price exposes a system rife with troubling assumptions and inequality that reduces each human to a data point. Well-written and readable, the book avoids being overly academic while still presenting a meticulously researched argument of why we all should take the time to understand how our own lives are priced.
The Royal Abduls by Ramiza Shamoun Koya (Forest Avenue Press, May 12)
A gorgeous novel about family, The Royal Abduls follows Amina Abdul and her nephew Omar as they both struggle to understand their identities against a landscape of renewed anti-Muslim hostility in post–9/11 America. Amina, a researcher, leaves DC for India, and Omar is left behind in the aftermath of his parents’ divorce. Written with empathy and nuance, Ramiza Shamoun Koya's story will stick with you and remind you to hold your loved ones closely.
We Were Called Specimens by Jason Teal (KERNPUNKT Press, July 1)
A book of flash fiction, We Were Called Specimens is made up of strange stories styled as an oral history told by a deity named Marjorie. Still, it’s grounded in details that are instantly recognizable, like working for minimum wage and carpooling with an annoying coworker. The fantastical — like a television pilot called “Are You Smarter Than a Dead Person” starring Marjorie’s niece who is, herself, back from the dead — is juxtaposed with the pedestrian; in another story, “Chores,” a child has to skip hanging out with friends to do household tasks.What makes debut writer Jason Teal's collection of speculative fiction work is the punchy writing that never veers too far from our own reality. ●