Until We Fall by Nicole Zelniker (Jaded Ibis Press)
In the aftermath of a disastrous election that mirrors the 2016 political climate in the United States, things in this novel’s country take a turn for the worse, and civil war breaks out. At first, Isla, a Black and transgender high school student has no idea her teacher, Ms. Young, is part of the resistance; what Isla does know is that her own mother is no longer allowed to work outside of the home, even though she doesn’t fully understand why. She also knows what her older sister Hannah tells her, like that being trans was not always illegal. This dystopian novel addresses how a nation loses democracy, while tracking how people find solace in a landscape of violence and loss of civil rights under an increasingly authoritarian government. Gorgeously written, Zelniker pinpoints the power that societies have to incite change.
A Country of Ghosts by Margaret Killjoy (Black Dawn)
Dimos, a wartime journalist in a fictional world, finds himself embedded in a rebel unit that has murdered the commander he was sent to profile. It’s often hard going for Dimos, who has to prove that he will not betray the anarchists who have both captured him and show him mercy. While he does not — and is never asked to — specifically renounce imperialism, Dimos comes to see what the insurgents are fighting for: a utopian society. It’s far from perfect, but then again, perfection is not the goal, community is. “One day,” Dimos says, “I realized food given freely tasted objectively better than food taken by force.” A short novel with the arc of an epic, A Country of Ghosts is a story of people who will give up everything, including their own lives, to live in a better world.
I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez (Santa Fe Writers Project)
A party features a washing machine that performs miracles, like cleaning leather pants; happy hours take place where people love the booze but don’t want the snacks; and a man has a second lunch with a best friend directly after his first solo lunch is finished, because it’s a way of loving her. I’m Not Hungry But I Could Eat follows mostly bi male characters as they wind their way through NYC, sometimes dancing, and sometimes eating a bodega sandwich. In all of these fifteen stories, Gonzalez threads a needle that knits together food, bodies, sexuality, and identity in a way that is both potent and earnest. A debut that leaves readers wanting a third and second helping.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by Brandon Getz (Six Gallery Press)
God and the Devil play chess, though God prefers Yahtzee. An alchemic being crawls out of an ill father’s head after he serrates his own neck with a knife; taking care of both her father and the being, a woman wishes they would both die. A man has the half-beginnings of an affair in a taxidermy shop while he worries for his daughters, one who needs glasses and the other a scoliosis brace, neither of which the taxidermist’s health insurance covers. In these 12 stories, Getz fully embraces characters who are desperate, strange, and often have absolutely no idea what to do next. In this way he creates a collection that is deeply weird but also strikingly human.
Out Front the Following Sea by Leah Angstman (Regal House Press)
In this historical novel set in 1600s colonial America, after a hard winter, Ruth, who has already been branded as an outsider, loses her grandmother. With nothing left to anchor her to her village, she barely escapes a mob, and bargains for a passage on a ship where her childhood friend, Owen, is the first mate. Ruth chafes against customs and propriety, neither of which have ever done much for her. In a new town, she is taken in by an older couple. What follows is a violent reckoning for Ruth, and at every turn, she struggles against convention — and her connection with Owen does not make anything easier. A new voice in historical fiction, Angstman confronts America’s embedded racism, sexism, and religious hypocrisy. Intensely researched, at its center Out Front the Following Sea is a love story, and a page-turner at that.
The History of Man by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu (Catalyst Press)
Emil is the son of colonialists in an unnamed Southern African country. After boarding school, he follows the path that has been set for him, becoming a civil servant. When war breaks out in the country, he is swept up in the urgency of it, only to find himself directionless when a ceasefire is announced. The second book from Ndlovu, which follows some of the same themes and characters from her debut Theory of Flight, is often affectionate toward Emil, even when he doesn’t deserve it. Marked by his parents' conflicted marriage and his own complicity in racist policy, Emil must ask himself what his old boarding school motto of “turning boys into men” really means. Both complicated and insightful, this book leaves readers wondering what is next for Ndlovu.
When Me and God Were Little by Mads Nygaard, translated from the Dutch by Steve Schein (Dzanc Books, Jan. 18)
When Karl Gustav’s older brother drowns, he is sent to live with his grandmother in the country, and by the time he returns, his father’s lucrative construction business has attracted the attention of the police. After a trial, his family is forced to move into subsidized housing in a new town, young Karl obsessively plays soccer and befriends a classmate with a heart condition. All the while, the loss of his sibling has left Karl angry in a way he cannot express, and while he is too young to really comprehend what has happened to his parents financially, he does understand that nothing will ever be the same. Told from the perspective of a child who is both struggling and confident, Nygaard captures the wonderment of experiencing everything from the dreadful to the joyful for the very first time. A moving book from an unforgettable voice.
The Man With Eight Pairs of Legs by Leslie Kirk Campbell (Sarabande Books, Feb. 1)
An abused woman is not allowed to leave her own house until she makes a deal with her terrible husband, a cheating man believes he will be ready to die once he beats his wife at a word game they’ve been playing for years, and a tall woman who has struggled with cutting falls in love with a runner who has lost his legs. In these eight stories, Campbell spins tales of isolation that range from the desperate to the profound, and her clear prose cuts through the trepidation her characters often feel. A meaningful and utterly devastating collection that cements Campbell as a leading short story writer.
New Animal by Ella Baxter (Two Dollar Radio, Feb. 15)
Amelia Aurelia is a trained embalmer who focuses on cosmetics, doing the hair and makeup of the dead at her family’s small funeral parlor. She has a talent for the work, and she seems happy enough, living in the gatehouse of her mother and step-father’s home, occupying her free time with app hookups. Yet, when her mother dies in a sudden accident, Amelia is plunged into a freefall, and she escapes to her biological dad’s house in Tasmania where she discovers the local BDSM scene. While this novel is peppered with scenes in kink clubs and the macabre of Amelia’s profession — and is also, in places obscenely funny — this is a story of a young woman who has to figure out how to live without her mother and has to also understand how her two dads will put aside their differences to hold her through the loss of the woman they both loved. There is fiction about grief and then there is Ella Baxter’s New Animal. Truly stunning.
How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories by Daniel A. Olivas (University of Nevada Press, Feb. 22)
In these selected stories that come from Olivas’s long publishing career, the magical realism, fairy tales, and sometimes dystopias that have often been a thread in his work are even more deeply underscored. Many of the characters are everyday people who have a special power (like the widower Tony who can sculpt anything from mud and make it come alive with a short spell), or who are visited by otherworldly guests (like Ysrael who is called on by a confused bureaucrat from Hell). Throughout all of his stories, there are strong Chicano characters, who embody tales that range from the laugh-out-loud funny to the heartbreaking. A timely retrospective from an important voice in Latinx literature.
Border Less by Namatra Podder (7.13 Books, Feb. 27)
In her airline call center job, Dia works against the clock to resolve passenger complaints within the allotted time. She’s running on very little sleep, working the night shift while she finishes her university degree and helping her family when her father’s cancer has returned. Dia dreams of completing an MBA in the US, even as she deals with rude and entitled Americans on the phone, and she does eventually make it to California. This novel also follows other women in an interconnected narrative — like fashion designers and multilevel marketing “Supperwear” sellers. What emerges is a story that is made whole through its fragmentation. A thoughtful exploration of what it means to belong.
Little Foxes Took Up Matches by Katya Kazbek (Tin House Books, April 5)
Set in Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this novel follows child and preteen Mitya as he traverses the turmoil of growing up. Alternating between the harsh realities of Mitya’s life — a sexually abusive cousin, the murder of his friend, rampant alcoholism — and the lush, parallel retelling of a fairytale with a traditional Slavic character, this novel is layered with questions about mortality and identity. It is a coming-of-age story that is at times chilling and in equal moments heartfelt, and at the center of it, Mitya is simply trying to find his own way. Kazbek writes with a kind of urgency that makes her novel a true standout. Every page sparks with energy in this ambitious and original debut.
New to Liberty by DeMisty D. Bellinger (Unnamed Press, April 19)
Told in three sections that work backward, starting in 1966 and ending 1933, this novel from DeMisty D. Bellinger unfolds the story of three interconnected women. Set mostly in Kansas, during and after the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, Sissily, Nella, and Greta must negotiate their way through their respective times. Present always is the threat of violence toward women, especially women of color. An assault by strangers in an auto shop, and assaults by a father and a boyfriend. Though set in the past, this book reads as contemporary, in a painful acknowledgment of how while a lot may have changed from 1933, in some ways, there’s not been so much change at all. Written with raw clarity, New to Liberty addresses race, gender, and anti-LGBTQ prejudice in a way that both face discrimination head-on and also blends the experiences of Bellinger’s characters seamlessly into the narrative. Watch for this book on every “best of” list for 2022.
Singing Lessons for the Stylish Canary by Laura Stanfill (Lanternfish Press, April 19)
For hundreds of years in the rainy village of Mireville, France, craftspeople make musical instruments and lace to export. When baby Georges is born to the Blanchards, the skies part, and Mireville is suddenly drenched with sun, with some consequences. Sent to America to deliver a serinette (a historical device used to train canaries to sing) from his father’s workshop to a wealthy client, teenaged Georges is seduced by the woman and hastily returns to France to marry his school crush, only later learning of her pregnancy. Later, Georges’s second son, Henri, must untangle how his village has such narrow expectations that men make music and women tat, and embarks on a journey to meet his half-brother in America. While the plot focuses on the legacies of sons, it is women’s friendships and alliances that hold this book together. Stanfill writes with such lightness that even the heaviest parts of this novel float. A charming debut.
Constellations of Eve by Abbigail Nguyen Rosewood (Texas Tech University Press, May 3)
Eve, a visual artist who struggles to see the worth in her own practice, feels forced to choose between two loves: her best friend and her boyfriend. Soon enough, the boyfriend becomes a husband and the father of their child. Yet, as Eve and her spouse become increasingly distant, she reconnects with her old friend, only to find there may be a link between the friend and the husband. Eve is haunted by her photographer mother’s ideas of beauty, and her mother’s cautions about being caught in the eye of the beholder or being the beholden. Eve is also often isolated in a rural home. In strikingly searing prose, Rosewood unfolds a compelling story of betrayal and obsession.
I Only Cry With Emoticons by Yuvi Zalkow (Red Hen Press, June 7)
In this comic but still tender novel, Saul is an awkward tech employee trying to understand his recent divorce, his relationship to fatherhood, his job, and his new girlfriend. Saul is mostly awful at all of the above, but his effort is endearing. Zalkow gives us a character who is nearly desperate in his need for approval, yet ultimately manages to look outside of his own obsessions and understand the love he has been seeking was there all along. The smartwatch interruptions with codebase errors for the app Saul has helped architect for his job rings true for anyone who has worked in tech, but either way, I Only Cry With Emoticons masterfully captures both the anxiety and hope of our modern lives. ●
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