I Mean You No Harm by Beth Castrodale (Imbrifex Books)
In this character-driven mystery-thriller, Layla, a struggling artist who has recently been let go from her day job, is processing the death of her father, who had committed crimes, which brings up new questions about her mother’s death. It had been assumed that Layla’s mother died by suicide, but now she isn’t so sure. In an attempt to reconcile the tragedies of her family, she takes a road trip with her half-sister Bette from Ohio to Arizona. Through those long miles, the two women uncover parts of their past and move toward reconciling their troubled relationship. Castrodale’s novel is a slow burn, but ultimately a very satisfying one.
Darryl by Jackie Ess (Clash Books)
Living off his modest inheritance in Eugene, Oregon, Darryl takes psychedelics to cope, in part, with his “half-open” relationship. While Darryl proclaims to enjoy being a cuckold, it’s also clear that he has little to say in and less consent about how his marriage operates. It’s also clear that he has no idea how toxic he is to other people. Written almost as a confessional, this novel from Jackie Ess captures the fear and anxiety of a certain kind of man — cis, moneyed, white — and lays it bare. What’s so engaging is not the sex nor the drugs in the plot, but the way that Ess harnesses the conversational style of the internet to tell Darryl’s story in a way that is both electric and insightful.
You’ll Be Fine by Jen Michalski (NineStar Press)
Alex Maas has worked hard to leave her small Maryland town behind to make it as a writer in Washington. When her mother dies, Alex returns to her childhood home, and complicates the trip by pitching a story to her DC editor about a local chef — who just happens to be Alex’s ex-girlfriend from high school who hasn’t come out. While sorting through the unresolved feelings she has for her ex, she meets another woman in her hometown with whom she has instant chemistry. Alex asks the familiar coming-of-age questions about family, love, and what the past means for the future, but You’ll Be Fine is a thoroughly modern take on this genre. Insightful detail paired with Michalski’s signature ability to tell family stories makes this novel shine.
Grandmothers on Guard: Gender, Aging, and Minutemen at the US-Mexico Border by Jennifer L. Johnson (University of Texas Press)
A scholarly book that reads like watching a fast-paced documentary, Grandmothers on Guard is an investigation into the older woman, many of them literal grandmothers, who have stationed themselves at the US–Mexico border as part of the ongoing vigilante effort to police immigration. What Johnson discovers is that the motivations of women who are part of the Minutemen and similar groups is less rooted in seeking out violent conflict than their male counterparts; these women are seeking relevance. In a society that genders even aging, however misguided the work is, it is a way for them to be less invisible. A professor of Latino/a Studies, Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge of border politics and context to this fascinating book.
Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round by Amy Wright (Sarabande Books)
Wright intersperses excerpted interviews with other writers with her own essays, which thread the collection together. It’s particularly interesting to read different responses to the same query, like, “When have you felt the freest?” (which appears throughout the book). Paper Concert is an invitation to slow down and consider complicated questions for which there are no absolute answers.
Grievers by Adrienne Maree Brown (Black Dawn, Sept. 7)
A mysterious illness is gripping Detroit, and Dune’s mother is patient zero. It’s unclear to authorities if it is a pandemic, an epidemic, a virus, or a fungus, but the condition tears through Black communities. Even though people are leaving the city, including her former lover, Marta, Dune stays on, caring for her older grandmother and inhabiting the home where she was raised. Across the city, people keep dying and Dune becomes a cartographer of loss, taking notes and collecting stories, while at the same time learning how to survive. The daughter of a researcher and an activist, Dune forges forward, even when confronted with terrible realities. This is a story of how our history shapes us, the hurt and the love and all the painful and joyful parts in between.
A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar (Forest Avenue Press, Sept. 7)
As a child caught in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Kimia clashed with teachers, her family, and against the social restrictions on girls and women. Now an adult, Kimia has since moved to San Diego, where despite the unresolved trauma of her past and struggles with self-harm, she becomes a successful life coach. When she returns to Iran with her mother, Kimia is caught in a collision of memory and the present. A beautifully layered #ownvoices novel.
Rites: Stories by Savannah Johnston (Jaded Ibis Press, Sept. 27)
In rural Oklahoma, the Indigenous characters in Rites are trying to circumvent poverty, incarceration, and addiction. A boy cuts his father’s fractured foot free from a boot, and some days later, the man dies. A relationship that might have been a romance ends at the same time the dope runs out. A 12-year-old girl attends her father’s funeral, while her uncle smokes pot outside. Johnston’s stories humanize the hardscrabble and illuminate the resiliency of her characters as they work through what it means to have and to lose family. Johnston writes with shattering clarity, and Rites is riveting from beginning to end.
The Hubris of an Empty Hand by Mahyar A. Amouzegar (The University of New Orleans Press, Sept. 30)
The expansive stories in The Hubris of an Empty Hand explore both the ordinary and the magical. A man named Stock receives a divine gift in the title story, the same man in a different story finds himself stranded on a liminal plane between life and death. Characters and places, like a restaurant called Spenta, recur throughout this collection, giving the philosophical components of this book an anchor. A contemplative exploration of both inner and external lives.
Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet by A. A. Balaskovits (Santa Fe Writers Project, Oct. 1)
The stories in Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet are short, many just three to four pages long, but each one is viscerally resonant. There’s a sense of the corporeal in these retellings of fairy tales and unusual perspectives of historical figures, with many of the stories linking back to ideas of the physical body. Both hunger and pregnancy have thematic roles, as does the sometimes violent nature of children. Written with a darkly sparkling lyricism, Balaskovits’ collection is gory, gorgeous, and like nothing else you’ll read.
Tales the Devil Told Me by Jen Fawkes (Press 53, Oct. 1)
Peter’s mom marries James Hook, who works at the Post Office now, and learns that the former captain’s hand was fed to an alligator by a different Peter. Moby Dick finally claps back to Ahab, and an actual Penny Dreadful counsels readers to fill the shampoo bottles of one’s tormentors with lard. Retelling and reimagining stories from pop culture to Shakespeare, in this sophomore collection, Fawkes cements herself as a master of the short story.
What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy (Tin House, Oct. 5)
The devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti is the connection point between families, both born and chosen, in the new novel from Chancy. In the wake of the disaster, the destruction plunges her characters into desperation. Whether she is telling the story of a ruthless expat entrepreneur and his estranged mother, who sells produce at a Port-Au-Prince market, a mother who has lost her three children and is visited by their ghosts in a refugee camp, or a woman who understands her power in doing sex work by choice, Chancy renders each voice as unique. While deeply haunting, What Storm, What Thunder is not without hope.
Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud (Unnamed Press, Oct. 12)
Interconnected Egyptian families wrestle with how status and religion influence their lives in this stunning debut. As the sons of their twin mothers, Amir and Sheero have a close, if complicated, cousin relationship. In a parallel story, Omar and Mustafa are twin brothers who couldn’t be more different. This novel explores the cultural fabric of Cairo alongside the deep influences of economic class and what people will do to both change and maintain their positions. Cairo Circles is both beautifully textured and emotionally charged.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart (Two Dollar Radio, Oct. 19)
In November 2013, military police in Ukraine murdered hundreds of anti-Russia protesters in the central square in Kyiv; in this fictionalized version of the events this novel captures the tension and energy of a nation on the eve of revolution. Using traditional folktales and weaving in Slavic history, Pickhart follows a doctor, an engineer who is originally from the region of the Chernobyl disaster, a protester, and a former KGB agent through the turbulence of the moment and the heartbreak of the four’s pasts. A debut that is as thoughtful as it is explosive.
Eternal Night at the Nature Museum by Tyler Barton (Sarabande Books, Nov. 2)
Whether a sibling struggling to relate to his prepper brother or a woman who has the perpetual hiccups after watching her home explode from a gas leak on YouTube, Eternal Night at the Nature Museum is a collection packed with stories that cut to the heart of living in contemporary America. In each story, Barton draws out empathy and imagination. A debut that is both gritty and hopeful.
The Four Humors by Mina Seçkin (Catapult, Nov. 9)
After losing her father to a heart attack, Sibel, a Turkish American student, is staying with her grandmother in Istanbul. Her boyfriend has come along with her for the summer, but being in Turkey has made their relationship more difficult. Sibel starts to learn more about her extended family, especially as her grandmother begins to open up about past traumas and complicated dynamics. Obsessed with ancient Greek and historical Muslim medical theories, pre-med Sibel struggles to figure out how she fits into modern Turkey while also trying to reconcile clashes within her own family. The Four Humors is an engaging read that addresses both the Turkish diaspora and what it means to change.
Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement by Suzanne Cope (Lawrence Hill Books, Nov. 11)
Power Hungry is a feminist history that surfaces the activism of Aylene Quin and Cleo Silvers while also telling the stories of other Black women who were central to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The research is meticulous, and Cope expertly contextualizes scholarship with the voices of the women who lived through the Freedom Summer — some of whom, like Silvers — are still at work today. Central to Power Hungry is the reframing of the idea of “power” and how the voices of Black women were silenced in a forceful way as the values of white patriarchy were imposed on Black Americans. The role of food in this history is one of a catalyst for social and political change, and of caring and connection. Feeding people is not “women’s work” in this narrative, it is a radical act that keeps activists and their families alive. Power Hungry is required reading.
Head Case by Alexis Orgera (Kore Press, Dec. 1)
In this lyric collection, Orgera weaves fragments of her own memories, family lore, images, mythology, and scientific data together as she grapples with the loss of her father from Alzheimer’s disease. While she’s struggling with the migraines that have plagued her from childhood, she sees her father slowly unravel, cleaved in two by moments of dementia and those of clarity. Early in his diagnosis, her father even names the split: There is Al Heimer, “the other guy,” and there is himself, Bo Orgera. It is a scene that would read as playful if it were not so tragic, and it captures the magic of Head Case. An unflinching look at suffering that is also suffused with beauty.●