Edgy humor and fierce imagery coexist in these stories with shrewd characterization and humane intelligence, inspired by volatile material sliced off the front pages.
The state of race relations in post-millennial America haunts most of the stories in this debut collection. Yet Adjei-Brenyah brings to what pundits label our “ongoing racial dialogue” a deadpan style, an acerbic perspective, and a wicked imagination that collectively upend readers’ expectations. “The Finkelstein 5,” the opener, deals with the furor surrounding the murder trial of a white man claiming self-defense in slaughtering five black children with a chainsaw. The story is as prickly in its view toward black citizens seeking their own justice as it is pitiless toward white bigots pressing for an acquittal. An even more caustic companion story, “Zimmer Land,” is told from the perspective of an African-American employee of a mythical theme park whose white patrons are encouraged to act out their fantasies of dispensing brutal justice to people of color they regard as threatening on sight, or “problem solving," as its mission statement calls it. Such dystopian motifs recur throughout the collection: “The Era,” for example, identifies oppressive class divisions in a post-apocalyptic school district where self-esteem seems obtainable only through regular injections of a controlled substance called “Good.” The title story, meanwhile, riotously reimagines holiday shopping as the blood-spattered zombie movie you sometimes fear it could be in real life. As alternately gaudy and bleak as such visions are, there’s more in Adjei-Brenyah’s quiver besides tough-minded satire, as exhibited in “The Lion & the Spider,” a tender coming-of-age story cleverly framed in the context of an African fable.
Corrosive dispatches from the divided heart of America.
A debut novel examines the ripple effects of mental illness and betrayal on a broken family.
In 1997, Edith is 16; younger sister Mae is 14. Edith is “headstrong” and loyal: She’s spent most of her life caring for her mentally ill mother after her father, Dennis, left the family when she was 4. Mae, nicknamed “Spooks” because of her eerie demeanor, is deeply empathetically connected to their mother in a way that practical Edie is not. When their mother attempts suicide and is hospitalized, the sisters are sent to New York City from Louisiana to live with their father. A famous novelist, Dennis is now faced with Edie’s bitterness and resentment at his betrayal and Mae’s bottomless emotional need for his attention. But the situation appears to be just the dangerous spark he needs to finally write the masterpiece that his early career predicted, and he is willing now, as he was in his marriage to the girls’ mother, to exploit it. Apekina’s decision to structure the novel as a kaleidoscopic whirl of perspectives is perfect: We can see how different Mae's and Edie’s understandings are of their parents’ behavior, and the minor characters that occasionally interject show how the situation appears to those outside the destructive family dynamic. We feel the characters hurtling toward disaster as Edie grows more enraged and turns to her father’s neighbor for help in returning to Louisiana to reunite with her mother and as Mae and Dennis grow mutually more obsessed with each other. Apekina’s inventiveness with structure and sentence marks the book’s every page, and the result is a propulsive and electrifying look at how family—and art—can both break people and put them back together again.
A young woman’s offbeat adventures among misfits, weirdos, and other human beings.
Mona cleans houses for a living. This surprises people, as Mona is white, and English is her first language. The world seems to expect more from her than she expects from herself, which might be why Mona falls for a junkie. The man she thinks of as “Mr. Disgusting” is, at first, nothing more than fodder for fantasy—her profession affords a lot of time for elaborate daydreaming—but, eventually, the two start a real relationship. Just as there is more to Mona than her clients expect from a cleaning woman, Mr. Disgusting is not solely defined by his addiction. Both Mona and her author are sharp—but empathetic—observers, and this story is filled with characters who are seriously damaged and wholly human. The novel is shaped by the people Mona meets. There’s Mr. Disgusting, who cannot escape himself but gives Mona the push she needs to grow into herself. Nigel and Shiori are a weirdly serene couple whose offers of help Mona ignores, but they help her anyway. Henry is a client with a secret. And Betty is a psychic who may not be a total fake. And then there’s Mona herself, plagued by ailments emotional and physical and trying to finally understand the truth of her chaotic childhood. Mona is cleareyed and funny, not a reliable person exactly but a trustworthy observer. What gives this novel its heart is Beagin’s capacity for seeing: As Mona cleans peoples’ homes, we learn that the wealthy, well-dressed, superior individuals who pay her to scrub their toilets are just as messed up as the addicts and prostitutes and gamblers she encounters outside of work. This is not a new theme, of course, but Beagin makes it fresh with her sly, funny, compassionate voice. This is a terrific debut.
The 17 stories in this debut collection take place around the world, exploring queer and interracial love, extramarital affairs, and grief over the disappearances of loved ones.
The book provocatively probes the aftermath—the aftermath of death, of grim diagnoses, of abandonment, of monumental errors in judgment. Passages jump back and forth in time to dissect how the consequences of a fraught event shape and unravel the lives of innocent casualties. In the searing title story, which references the Buddha’s birth, the narrator wanders around London while mourning her recent miscarriage. “I lie down now and feel the weight of it on me, a white dancing elephant that I can see with my eyes closed, airy and Disney in one dream, bellowing despair and showing tusks in the other.” In the evocative “Talinda,” among the strongest in the collection, a South Asian scholar named Narika attempts to justify her affair and pregnancy with her terminally ill best friend’s husband, George. “By thinking of Talinda as always being high above me, I could sometimes think of her as being untouched by what I had been doing with George. Like she had too much pride to be hurt by it. Like she had better things to do.” In the electric “A Shaker Chair,” Sylvia, a “polished, calm, perfect” biracial therapist, is both troubled by and obsessed with her newest client, the “slovenly” Maya. “Revulsion is what she makes me feel,” Sylvia confesses to a former supervisor. “The Bang Bang” incisively portrays the transformation of a crotchety father named Millind, whose “immigration history was spotted with failures,” into an acclaimed poet and “great man” at the same time his only son disappears. Millind’s daughter bears witness, though bitterly, to his newfound fame and resents his apathy toward her missing brother. “As if, because our father had found joy, my brother and his quiet sadness had to become invisible.”
An assured debut collection of stories about men and women, young and old, living and loving along the margins in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
In “I Happy Am,” one of nine tales Brinkley spins here about dreamers constricted or confounded by realities, Freddy is a young black boy from the Bronx who, at least for the length of the trip his summer camp is taking to the suburbs, imagines himself as a superpowered robot. Upon finding the house his camp is visiting to be “a bigger version of the apartment where [he] lived,” Freddy begins to wonder whether real life “spoke…to what his imagination guarded”: that there may be more potential for wonder and mystery beyond his dream life. This story shares with the others a preoccupation with characters’ reckoning with unfulfilled promises and unrecognized possibilities. The title of “J’ouvert, 1996” refers to an all-night revel originating at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza during which a teenage boy, his wide-eyed younger brother in tow, intends to find, and assert, a grown-up self. In “A Family,” an ex-convict grapples tentatively, even a bit reluctantly, with the idea of becoming a lover to the widow of his closest friend. The title story is about a middle-aged man who believes his wife has left him and taken whatever luck he could claim with her, while “Infinite Happiness” navigates the dicey emotional maze of a lopsided romantic triangle playing out in the promised land of present-day Brooklyn. It’s difficult to single out any story as most outstanding since they are each distinguished by Brinkley’s lyrical invention, precise descriptions of both emotional and physical terrain, and a prevailing compassion toward people as bemused by travail as they are taken aback by whatever epiphanies blossom before them.
In Broder’s debut novel, a disaffected academic struggling with a breakup finds love in the arms of a merman.
In the midst of writing a disingenuous dissertation about Sappho, Lucy surprises herself by breaking things off with her longtime boyfriend, Jamie, and spiraling into a depression. Thankfully, Lucy’s sister leaves her Venice Beach house, “a contemporary glass fortress,” for the summer and invites Lucy to level out, attend therapy, and dogsit. Predictably, Lucy is bad at each of these tasks. In group therapy, Lucy silently judges her fellow codependents, who “all blurred together into a multi-headed hydra of desperation,” while plotting how she can get over Jamie by getting under someone else. And while she cares for her sister’s dog, she’s not responsible enough to handle his strict dietary and medical needs, either. When Lucy meets Theo, a mysterious swimmer who haunts Venice Beach by night, she thinks her luck in love might have finally turned around. But what—other than a tail—might Theo be hiding? And who is Lucy willing to neglect in order to find out? On the surface, this audacious novel from Broder (So Sad Today, 2016, etc.) is a frank exploration of desire, fantasy, and sex. But it dives deeper, too, seeking out uncomfortable topics and bringing them into the light: codependency, depression, suicidal ideation, and an existential fascination with the void each get their days in the sun. When we obsess about a breakup, or about all the sex that comes before a breakup, what are we actually obsessing over? “I didn’t know if the universe actively taught lessons,” Lucy thinks during her affair with Theo. “But if it did, the lesson was that I could not handle what I thought I could handle.” Broder has created a voice at once intimate and sharp, familiar and ugly. Lucy dares you to recognize your thoughts, fantasies, and obsessions in her own even as she makes questionable choices in life and love. This isn’t just a novel about navigating the dangers of codependency, but an attempt to learn how we all might love better in a culture that pushes even its strongest women to the brink of self-destruction.
A fascinating tale of obsession and erotic redemption told with black humor and biting insight.
The interior life of a millennial Everywoman as she matures over the decades.
Prepare to fall in love with Leda, the wickedly relatable protagonist of Casale's funny, insightful, and deeply adorable debut. When we first meet her, she's a college student studying writing in Boston, dealing with her annoying friendships with women, her unsatisfying encounters with men, and the loneliness and self-doubt at the heart of it all. As she moves through life, we see all her experiences from both the outside and the inside. For example, in a coffee shop exchange with her friend Elle about their future plans, Elle announces that, as far as she's concerned, it's time for the fantasy of becoming a writer to end. She just wants to set "realistic goals," she says. "Leda recognized the familiar wave of cruelty and cattiness that lingered in the comment, a rich but common display of the unabashed hatred and simultaneous press for superiority any woman could feel for another woman at any given moment.” Soon after this meeting with her ultraslender friend, Leda decides to join a gym. "As she walked past all the men and their weights, she looked back at the women running and biking and stepping. Keep running ladies, she thought. You'll never get away." Much later in life she's in a dressing room, miserably trying on bathing suits. She has told the obnoxious salesgirl several times that her name is Leda, but the woman insists on calling her Lisa, shouting, " 'Lisa, how are the sizes working for you?' 'Fine.' I'll kill you, Karen. I'll kill you right now, so help me god." We follow Leda as she drifts away from her commitment to writing and toward her first serious relationship, relocating quite unhappily for her partner's career. One of the most moving and original parts of the book is when Leda becomes a mother and we can see how much her attitudes toward herself and other people have matured by the way she raises her own child. In fact, the depictions of Leda's connections to both her mother and her daughter are filled with love and warmth. This is so rare in contemporary fiction, it's almost hard to believe. But just as importantly, will she ever get around to reading Noam Chomsky?
So much fun, so smart, and ultimately profound and beautiful.
Castillo’s debut novel presents a portrait of the Filipino diaspora, told through the lens of a single family.
Revolving around Hero de Vera—a former rebel (with the scars to prove it) turned au pair of sorts in Milpitas, California—this is a book about identity but even more about standing up for something larger than oneself. The idea is implicit in that name, Hero, though Castillo pushes against our expectations by bestowing it upon a woman fighting patriarchy. Her employer, after all—her sponsor, really—is her uncle Pol, scion of an influential family. For the most part, Castillo tracks Hero’s experiences in the San Francisco Bay Area, highlighting two sustaining relationships: the first with Roni, her uncle’s school-age daughter, and the second with Rosalyn, with whom she falls in love. The most important relationship in the book, however, is the one she develops with herself. It’s not that Castillo is out to write a novel of transformation; Hero is on a journey, certainly, but it’s hard to say, exactly, that the circumstances of her existence change. And yet, this is the point, or one of them, that this sharply rendered work of fiction seeks to address. “She wasn’t killed…or didn’t kill herself,” the character reflects. “Tragedy could be unsensational.” Unsensational, yes—much like daily life. Castillo is a vivid writer, and she has a real voice: vernacular and fluid, with a take-no-prisoners edge. At the same time, she complicates her narrative by breaking out of it in a variety of places—both by deftly incorporating languages such as Tagalog and Ilocano and through the use of flashback or backstory, in which we learn what happened to Hero before she left the Philippines. There are also two second-person chapters (the rest is told in third-person) that further complicate the point of view. Here, we encounter Pol’s wife, Paz, who untangles the intricate ties of family, and Rosalyn, who explains the vagaries of love. Through it all, we have a sense that what we are reading is part of a larger story that stretches beyond the borders of the book. “As usual,” Castillo writes, “you’re getting ahead of yourself, but there isn’t enough road in the world for how ahead of yourself you need to get.”
Beautifully written, emotionally complex, and deeply moving, Castillo's novel reminds us both that stories may be all we have to save us and also that this may never be enough.
A quiet gut-punch of a debut, Coster’s novel is a family saga set against the landscape of gentrifying Brooklyn.
After five years away in Pittsburgh—a city whose primary appeal is its distance from Brooklyn—Penelope Grand, former artist and current bartender, reluctantly returns to Bedford-Stuyvesant to care for her ailing and beloved father, Ralph, moving into a sublet a few streets away from her childhood home. But the neighborhood has changed in her absence: her landlords, the Harpers, new to the block from the West Village, embody the shift—a young family, white, wealthy, attracted to the “historic” homes and the lower price tags. And yet the Harpers’ charming yellow house—and the affections of the charming father—offer Penelope an escape from the life she’s returned to. At least for a while. But when a postcard from her estranged mother, Mirella, shows up addressed to her from the Dominican Republic (Penelope isn’t the only one in her family desperate for escape), Penelope is forced to deal with a past she’d rather ignore. Alternating between Penelope’s perspective and Mirella’s, moving seamlessly back and forth in time, Coster pieces together the story of the Grand family: Mirella and Ralph’s early courtship and the first days of their marriage in Brooklyn, Ralph’s iconic record store and the accident that followed its closing, Penelope’s miserable freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, her childhood trips with Mirella to the DR, and now—in the present—their final chance at something like reconciliation. Gorgeous and painfully unsentimental, the book resists easy moralizing: everyone is wonderful and terrible, equal parts disappointed and disappointing. The plot is simple, relatively speaking, but Coster is a masterful observer of family dynamics: her characters, to a one, are wonderfully complex and consistently surprising.
Absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.
Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut.
Halliday writes first, in Folly, of Alice, an editor in New York during the second Bush presidency, and her relationship with Ezra, a well-known and much older author. Alice struggles to establish her own identity at a time when Ezra’s health concerns focus his attention on mortality. Through their occupations and their relationship, the lovers examine the nature of story. “Who knows if it’s any good," Ezra says of his manuscript at one point. "It’s a funny business, this. Making things up. Describing things." Alice’s roles as both a literary gatekeeper and a much younger companion are an important, related dichotomy. Art is omnipresent; music and baseball, too, become the rhythm that runs beneath the melody of the couple's interaction. Alice wants to write about herself, but she “doesn’t seem important enough.” The lovers’ age difference adds gravity to their relationship and the stories they each tell. The second part of the book, Madness, initially appears to be wholly unrelated to the first: Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, is detained at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan in 2008. Halliday hints at her strategy, though: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” says Amar as he’s detained, quoting Bellow. Amar’s story is darker, filled with grief, and alternates between flashbacks and the present day. Though nothing is obvious about the connection of Amar’s story to Alice’s, the author gently highlights notes from the first story, and the juxtaposition of the two tales is further complicated—and illuminated—by the addition of a third and final section that brings them together.
A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.
As up-to-the-minute as a Kendrick Lamar track and as ruefully steeped in eternal truths as a Gogol tale, these stories of young working-class black men coming into their dubious inheritances mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling.
We’ll start with Gio since his is the voice telling most of these interrelated stories of love, longing, and thwarted aspiration among men of color growing up in the hilly, blue-collar enclave of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He is the mixed-race son of a professional football player named Lonnie “The Lion” Campbell, whose career, along with his mind, declined in shockingly abrupt ways. Dub, one of Gio’s childhood friends, dreamed of playing pro football though, as Gio recounts, he wasn’t as good as their other friend, Rye, who as an adult answers to the dual calling of dealing drugs and fighting fires. Then there’s Rolls, whose hard, street-coarsened manner belies a spirit romantic and inquisitive enough to become absorbed in photography. Each of these four young men, as different in temperament as they are similar in sensitivity, is enmeshed in struggles to break free of the constrictions imposed on his dreams by society and by himself. Gio, who has come into considerable money in part because of a settlement with the NFL over his dad’s untimely deterioration and death, is shown squandering these funds on drugs and other diversions in New York City while flashing gifts as a free-style rap artist. At least he gets out of Pawtucket while his friends struggle with their respective demons—and with the wise and often too-forbearing women in their lives. The stories are by turns comedic, bawdy, heartbreaking, and grisly. What links them all is the heady style deployed throughout; language with the same taut rhythm and blunt imagery as the best hip-hop yet capable of intermittent surges of lyricism that F. Scott Fitzgerald in his own precocious stories of youthful romance and remorse could summon.
The publisher says Holmes is working on his first novel. This collection makes you thirst for whatever’s coming next.
It’s 2011, if not quite the 2011 you remember. Candace Chen is a millennial living in Manhattan. She doesn’t love her job as a production assistant—she helps publishers make specialty Bibles—but it’s a steady paycheck. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and his own mindless job. She doesn’t go with him, so she’s in the city when Shen Fever strikes. Victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. Retail workers fold and refold T-shirts. Women set the table for dinner over and over again. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see. The fevered aren’t all that different from the factory workers who produce Bibles for Candace’s company. Indeed, one of the projects she works on almost falls apart because it proves hard to source cheap semiprecious stones; Candace is only able to complete the contract because she finds a Chinese company that doesn’t mind too much if its workers die from lung disease. This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment. This is Ma’s first novel, but her fiction has appeared in distinguished journals, and she won a prize for a chapter of this book. She knows her craft, and it shows. Candace is great, a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength. She’s sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels between her life before the End and the pathology of Shen Fever. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience.
Orange’s debut novel offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, California, through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters.
An aspiring documentary filmmaker, a young man who has taught himself traditional dance by watching YouTube, another lost in the bulk of his enormous body—these are just a few of the point-of-view characters in this astonishingly wide-ranging book, which culminates with an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, who grew up in the East Bay and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, knows the territory, but this is no work of social anthropology; rather, it is a deep dive into the fractured diaspora of a community that remains, in many ways, invisible to many outside of it. “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes. “Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum.” The plot of the book is almost impossible to encapsulate, but that’s part of its power. At the same time, the narrative moves forward with propulsive force. The stakes are high: For Jacquie Red Feather, on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time, there is nothing as conditional as sobriety: “She was sober again,” Orange tells us, “and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time.” For Daniel Gonzales, creating plastic guns on a 3-D printer, the only lifeline is his dead brother, Manny, to whom he writes at a ghostly Gmail account. In its portrayal of so-called “Urban Indians,” the novel recalls David Treuer’s The Hiawatha, but the range, the vision, is all its own. What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here.
In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.
In this inventive debut, Rosenberg transforms the legend of Jack Sheppard, infamous 18th-century London thief, into an epic queer love story.
When Dr. R. Voth, “a guy by design, not birth,” discovers a “mashed and mildewed pile of papers” at a university library book sale, he becomes obsessed with transcribing and documenting its contents. The manuscript appears to be a retelling of the Jack Sheppard legend, but it contains a marked difference: Jack was not born Jack, but P—, a young girl with a knack for making and fixing things. P— escapes indentured servitude and falls into the arms of Bess Khan, a prostitute of South Asian descent, who sees Jack as he longs to be seen. Together, the two lovers hatch schemes that take them across plague-ridden London, dodging the police state and the sinister grasp of Jonathan Wild, “Thief-Catcher General,” who has it out for Jack. Meanwhile, in the manuscript’s margins, Voth suffers at the hands of the crumbling state university and its exploitative administration. As punishment for frittering away his office hours, Voth must share the discovery of the manuscript with the “Dean of Surveillance” and a dubious corporate sponsor who leers at Jack’s story and, by extension, Voth’s humanity. “But you yourself are a—,” the sponsor ventures to Voth in an explanation he doesn’t have the guts to complete. Through a series of revealing footnotes, Voth traces queer theories of the archive as well as histories of incarceration, colonialism, and quack medicine practiced on the subjugated body. As the stories in the footnotes and the manuscript intertwine, the dual narrative shifts and snakes between voices and registers, from an 18th-century picaresque romp to an academic satire. Even when Rosenberg, a scholar of 18th-century literature and queer/trans theory at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, allows Voth to become pedantic, it’s in the service of this novel’s marvelous ambition: To show how easily marginalized voices are erased from our histories—and that restoring those voices is a disruptive project of devotion.
A singular, daring, and thrilling novel: political, sexy, and cunning as a fox.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.