18 Books From Smaller Publishers That Deserve Your Attention

Whether you pick up a gripping thriller or a moving memoir, there are plenty of ways to support small presses this autumn.

Nadja on Nadja, Tsipi Keller (Underground Voices, out now)

Keller’s 14th book follows the namesake protagonist as she holds down a mundane job while trying to write a novel. Hyper-relatable to anyone who has been stuck in a soulless corporate gig, Keller does a great job making Nadja the character and Nadja the book fully realized portraits that capture the tensions between doing wage work and trying to have an artistic life.

Girl Zoo, Carol Guess and Aimee Parkison (The University of Alabama Press, out now)

University presses have long been key in the literary ecosystem when it comes to issuing original, risky work, and ’Bama’s is one of the most innovative. Writers Carol Guess and Aimee Parkison coauthored this collection of short stories about the impact that pop culture has on women. The concept of the “zoo” recurs throughout the book. In each chapter, a woman is in some kind of lockup, whether physically or emotionally.

The Skinned Bird, Chelsea Biondolillo (Kernpunkt Press, out now)

Biondolillo’s compelling experimental memoir takes some big risks, both in emotional openness and in structure (for instance, there is an entire chapter where most of the text is obscured with images of seashells). The result is a gorgeous book about trauma and its aftermath that carries much more weight than its slim 165 pages.

The Cuban Comedy, Pablo Medina (Unnamed Press, out now)

The author of more than a dozen books spanning poetry, memoir, fiction, and translation, Medina’s latest is a novel rendered with a poet’s eye. It centers around Elena, an aspiring poet who is trapped in a village where most of the inhabitants are wrecked from drinking “firewater,” a brew potent enough to make them hallucinate. Elena finds a way to leave for 1960s Havana, where she encounters a new set of challenges: She ascends to the role of official poet of Cuba but then finds herself scrutinized by the regime. Under Medina’s care, this story is a surprisingly funny page-turner.

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lyz Lenz (Indiana University Press, out now)

What’s so lovely about this debut essay collection by a former Rumpus editor is how well she pairs her personal story with the backdrop of Middle America, a geographic and emotional landscape she defines not just by state boundaries but also by regional relationships to “hot dish,” or what folks on either coast would call “casserole.” Exceptionally well researched, these essays interrogate what it means to have faith in America, and while Lenz is rightly critical of regressive attitudes regarding women and their alleged place within some Christian contexts, she ultimately cultivates a sense of inquiry in these essays that goes beyond dogma. Anyone who is familiar with her work will not be surprised that she’s pulled off a book with academic-style citations that is also engaging.

Body Broker, Daniel M. Ford (Santa Fe Writers Project, out now)

Known as a fantasy writer, Ford’s fourth book, a detective novel, is a bit of a departure. His Paladin trilogy, which concluded in 2018, was exceptionally bloody, but, in Body Broker, the first of his new series, protagonist Jack Dixon avoids violence, opting to allow himself to be beaten up instead of fighting back as he goes in search of a teenager who has disappeared from an elite boarding school. Ford is one of those writers who is good at drawing tension through long plot lines, and he brings a literary sensibility to the crime fiction genre.

Take Daily as Needed, Kathryn Trueblood (University of New Mexico Press, out now)

A writer whose fiction has largely focused on the impact that medical intervention, technology, and culture has on our lives, Trueblood’s latest novel follows Maeve, a chronically ill single mother of two demanding kids. Her father is in the early stages of dementia and her mother has volatile mood swings. Anyone who has ever tried to hold it all together when there is too much to do will relate to Maeve’s plight.

Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl, Paula Marie Coomer (Fawkes Press, 9/10)

A dancer rips off her wig to show off the peace sign tattoo on her head; a Greyhound bus shuttles people to jail or to Las Vegas hotels; and a bone marrow donation inspires a commitment to vegetarianism. These are just a few of the Vietnam-era stories to be found in Coomer’s latest collection, which is set in small towns in the Midwest and the South. Her characters feel contemporary, wrestling with gender dynamics, economics, race, and the impact of war.

Kansastan, Farooq Ahmed (7.13 Books, 9/16)

No one knows what’s happening in the aftermath of the election of a white supremacist president except that Missouri and Kansas are locked in a deadly civil war. Ahmed follows this border conflict through the eyes of a goatherd who lives in a Kansas mosque’s minaret. Peppered with questions of divinity and destiny, Kansastan is a wild ride that draws on both Qur’anic and biblical mythology. It is darkly funny, often relatable, and uniquely American.

Feral, North Carolina, 1965, June Sylvester Saraceno (SFK Press, 9/17)

Set in the rural South as the battle for school integration wages, Willie Mae is a 10-year-old girl who chafes against her religious family and wants to hang out with her impossibly cool older brother. But when she learns about the mysterious circumstances behind her great-uncle’s decades-old death, she’s determined to find out what happened to him.

I’m From Nowhere, Linsday Lerman (Clash Books, 9/24)

Lerman’s heartbreaker of a debut novel is part eulogy, part examination of how life changes after a partner dies. Bowled over by grief after her husband’s death, main character Claire goes through the motions of the funeral and has to sit with the question of who she is now after such a devastating loss. Even as she begins to date other men, her husband is always in the undercurrent of Claire’s thoughts. “But the sun comes up,” Lerman writes in reference to Claire, “The goddamn sun keeps coming up.”

The Lightness of Water and Other Stories, Rhonda Browning White (Press 53, 10/11)

White dives as deeply into Southern lives as she does familial conflict and loss in her debut short story collection. A compelling new voice in literary fiction, she handles her characters with gentleness.

Ghosts of You, Cathy Ulrich (Okay Donkey, 10/15)

In her debut flash fiction collection, Ulrich focuses on the bodies of murdered women, rendering each story with a crystalline focus on how women often bear the brunt of violence and calling into question the common narratives around this fact. Each story starts with the same line, which by the end has the effect of an incantation. The reality of misogyny can make for rough reading, even in fiction, but the short form and Ulrich’s skill at avoiding the sensational make it worth it.

Kafka in a Skirt: Stories From the Wall, Daniel Chacón (University of Arizona Press, 10/29)

Chacón goes beyond the US–Mexico border and looks at the walls that divide all of us in this short story collection, the author’s seventh book. He doesn’t mince words about the US’s dangerous foreign policy in Latin America while presenting a nuanced look at life in urban Latinx spaces, where the political and the personal collide.

Shine of the Ever, Claire Rudy Foster (Interlude Press, 11/5)

Billed as a literary mixtape, Claire Rudy Foster’s queer and trans stories from ’90s Portland, Oregon, follow characters who are figuring out what it means to be young and in and out of love in the Pacific Northwest’s signature era. For those of us who have made mixtapes on actual tape, the metaphor is apt — there’s so much in this collection that’s about trying to time things perfectly — including the white space. Written in prose that’s both understated and urgent, Shine of the Ever captures the feeling you get when you’ve chosen the perfect next song.

No Good Very Bad Asian, Leland Cheuk (C&R Press, 11/14)

Sirius Lee is the stage name of Hor Luk Lee, a Chinese American comedian who wants to be a star. Against all odds, he pulls this off. No Good Very Bad Asian is a first-person ride through Lee’s ups and downs, and Cheuk balances a tenderness toward his character with biting comic turns as the novel confronts ideas about familial obligation.

The Thirteenth Month, Colin Hamilton (Black Lawrence Press, 11/15)

Readers who are fans of Bruno Schulz and Jorge Luis Borges will like this contemplative novel about a narrator whose mother has dementia. Hamilton manages to avoid being too indulgent, as this is another novel where the main character is a writer. But rather than the literary references, it’s the heartfelt nature of The Thirteenth Month that makes it worth reading.

… And Other Disasters, Malka Older (Mason Jar Press, 12/02)

Straddling poetry and prose, Older’s sophomore short story collection examines how climate change, human relationships, and technology intersect with our lives. An artificial intelligence machine is wired for empathy; one character studies a dying Earth. In its expansive scope, this is a small book with a big impact. ●

Wendy J. Fox is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (a finalist for the Colorado Book Award), The Pull of It (named a top 2016 book by Displaced Nation) and the novel If the Ice Had Held, named a top 2019 spring pick by BuzzFeed. She is writing from Denver, CO and tweeting from @wendyjeanfox.

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