The past, present, and future of an African nation is filtered with humane wit, vibrant rhetoric, and relentless ingenuity through the interweaving sagas of three very different families.
The year is 1904, and an itinerant would-be photographer named Percy Clark has wandered from his native England to a colonial outpost along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. One momentous day, Clark, addled by fever, is stumbling around the lobby of the Victoria Falls Hotel and somehow manages to inadvertently pull a hank of hair from the pate of the hotel’s Italian manager, whose 5-year-old daughter angrily responds by striking an "innocent native" passer-by so hard that “he became an imbecile.” From the moment that inexplicable calamity occurs, the descendants of these individuals find their respective fates entwined through what’s left of the 20th century and beyond as the land around them morphs into the nation of Zambia. Sometime in the 1960s, for instance, Percy’s wealthy granddaughter, Agnes, deprived by blindness of a promising tennis career, falls in love with a brilliant black exchange student whom she accompanies back to the soon-to-be-independent Zambia he calls home. During those same years, Matha, the precocious granddaughter of the poor assault victim, is among several math-and-science prodigies recruited by the country’s Minister of Space Research to train for a mission to the moon by decade’s end. Strangest of all these progenies is Sibilla, the granddaughter of the hotel manager, who is born with streams and streams of hair that never stops growing—and apparently makes things grow out of the ground, too. The children and the children’s children of these women find themselves inexorably, absurdly, and at times tragically drawn together through the history of both Zambia and the patch of land where their ancestors first collided. Blending intimate and at times implausible events with real-life history, this first novel by Serpell—a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and who's won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "The Sack"—enchants its readers with prose as luxuriant and flowing as Sibilla’s hair.
Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel’s generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.
Leung's stories lift the veiled curtain of late 1970s suburbia to reveal the sadness and isolation of its residents.
In the opening story of Leung's linked collection, 11-year-old June Lee frets over a disturbing trend: The parents in her suburban neighborhood of Toronto are committing suicide at an alarming rate. "Regardless of which group we belonged to—Chinese, white, or otherwise—by the second suicide, it felt like we were waiting for something else catastrophic to happen," recalls June. Her stories, all told in the first person, illuminate the subtle boundaries between girlhood and adolescence and serve to anchor the collection. Radiating outward from June's perspective are those of other women and children in the neighborhood. There's Marilyn, an impulsive middle-aged thief of discarded or forgotten items; Josie, June's best friend, who must work to support her family and who quietly keeps an assault to herself; Darren, a young black boy who experiences violent racism at the hands of a teacher; and June's elderly grandmother Poh Poh, who emigrated from Hong Kong and is leery of her granddaughter and her loud Canadian friends. Leung looks for ways to bridge the gaps between what characters say and what they mean, what they admit to themselves and what they won't utter aloud, ultimately painting a picture of deep social and racial divides. (When one white, wealthy neighbor observes that Toronto's poorer Italian neighborhood is "authentic," for instance, it feels a little on-the-nose.) Many of her neighborhood residents have left poverty behind in the city for a better life and a bigger lawn only to struggle with feelings of discontentment and shame about their social standing. The men and women who commit suicide suffer from isolation or mental illness, and Leung uses these tragedies to show the fragility of adulthood. Most heartbreaking, though, are the stories that address the fear and shame children internalize when they encounter racial and gendered violence. Darren is struck by a teacher in class despite repeated warnings from his mother to keep his eyes down around white people, and June's friend Nav is beaten for acting too feminine at school. "I didn't know what to do," June cries to Poh Poh, a familiar refrain throughout the collection. None of the adults in her life offer easy answers or solutions—the best they can do is provide comfort and a soft place to land until trouble moves on to the next family.
Written in the tradition of Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri, Leung's debut story collection marks the career of a writer to watch.
A genderqueer zombie and a lesbian werewolf resist a corrupt government that wants to incinerate them in this debut novel by Schrieve.
Any day now, Z, a white, 14-year-old zombie, might fall apart without the intervention of illegal necromancy to hold them together. Their whole family died in a car crash that should have killed them too. In their anti-monster small town of Salem, Oregon, Z’s only allies are their caretaker, Mrs. Dunnigan, an aging, brown-skinned lesbian whose health is failing, and Aysel Tahir, a fat, Turkish-American lesbian who faces life-threatening danger if anyone discovers she’s an unregistered werewolf. When a murder and accusations of werewolf terrorism shine a national spotlight on their town, Z and Aysel stand together to survive. Set in 1997, this darkly humored fantasy explores censorship, government surveillance, homelessness, and real-world (not just magical) forms of oppression. Chapters alternate between Aysel’s and Z’s points of view, winding their individual conflicts together. While classmates bully Aysel for her fatness, she owns her size and it makes her powerful. Schrieve depicts diversity among the queer and trans characters, highlighting how economic and racial privilege make the concerns of middle-aged, rich, white trans women different from those of a young, trans woman of color without access to medical care. Tension burns hot until the explosive conclusion, which begs for a sequel.
On fire with magic and revolution.
Passion (or the lack of) among the academic elite is the subject of Stern’s first novel, narrated by a philosophy professor who studies the nature of knowledge while clueless about how to lead his life.
Love and academic politics at an unnamed Rhode Island college make for an uneasy marriage between recently tenured Ivan and his younger wife, Prue. Ivan, a self-proclaimed “fusty scholar” with no apparent friends and little sense of adventure or humor (except with Prue’s 7-year-old niece, May, toward whom he is lovingly protective) adores Prue, an intellectual live wire popular with peers and students. He wonders, as will readers, what about him other than sex attracts Prue—probably not his binge-eating. Ivan’s scholarship, which circles around the nature of belief and knowledge, has always been eclipsed by biolinguist Prue’s scientific research into the nature of language. She has published 20 articles to his four and has received funding to start a center for ornithology at the college. Ivan has already sensed a tension growing between them before she announces that she has not yet decided whether to accept or reject an exciting six-month research offer from the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Worse, she doesn’t tell him this while they’re alone but rather in front of her encouraging friends. Ivan seems like a stick in the mud when he complains that her absence might have a negative effect on her upcoming tenure review. Then she gives a controversial lecture questioning the ethics of her own study of animal language. Horrified by the possible damage she’s done to her career, Ivan is again unsupportive. In contrast, Prue’s visiting father, Frank, leaps to her defense in disastrous fashion. Bipolar Frank’s mental health is spiraling down because Ivan has not made Frank take his meds as Prue requested. Meanwhile, just as genuine professional success appears within reach, Ivan’s misreading of the world around him causes him to mislead Prue in increasingly foolish and serious ways.
Stern’s brittle comedy of highfalutin intellectual theories evolves into a feeling portrait of a gifted man coming face to face with his limitations.
A time-traveling father must save his teenage daughter from secret agents who want to eliminate her to protect the historical timeline in this debut novel.
It's 1996 in suburban San Francisco. Kin Stewart, an agent for the Temporal Corruption Bureau, is on a mission to stop a time-traveling merc who's been hired to disrupt important legislation. There's a problem: Kin's been shot, and the implanted beacon that's supposed to help him return to 2142 has been damaged. Stranded in the past, Kin gradually forgets his previous life. He gets married, and he and his wife, Heather, have a daughter, Miranda. When Kin’s spent 18 years in the past, Heather accidentally triggers the indestructible "metal thingy" he’s kept hidden in their garage, inadvertently summoning Markus, a fellow TCB agent and the brother of Penny, Kin's fiancee in 2142. Markus gives Kin 24 hours to "close out" his life in the 20th century. When Kin realizes the TCB intends to eliminate 14-year-old Miranda as a timeline error, he's forced to risk everything to try to save her life. Plot holes are neatly sidestepped as Kin explains who can time travel, when and how often, what the grandfather paradox is, and why he can't bring his daughter with him to 2142. Naturally, it takes time to set out the rules, and the explanations don't all make sense, but Kin's story isn't primarily about time machines or the Museum of the Modern Era that serves fast food as a curiosity in 2142. It's about a father who learns the value of being honest and authentic with the daughter he loves because in the end, there is never enough time.
A subtly woven meditation about the fragility of time raises the bar in this smart, fun, and affectionate story.
A portrait of Lee Miller, the American cover girl and war photographer whose wild spirit captivated Picasso, Cocteau, and other eminences in 1930s Paris.
Readers meet Lee in 1966, at the farm where she retreated with her British husband, a painter and curator, after documenting Nazi atrocities and the liberation of Europe as Vogue’s war correspondent. She’s forgotten the old boxes of photoprints she heaved up to the attic—including the one of her posing in Hitler’s bathtub—and now writes mainly about food, brilliantly, though she drinks so heavily she misses deadlines. She’s expecting to get sacked when her editor suggests taking a pause to write about her years in Paris as Man Ray’s student and about some of his photos from that time. “The woman’s touch….A story only you can tell.” Cornered, Lee accepts—with one caveat: not his photos, hers. And what a story! It starts with Lee’s first glimpse of Ray at a surrealist orgy she’s dragged to by new acquaintances. After modeling couture for some of the best photographers in New York, she’s just 22 and come to the Left Bank to make art. The only male in the room wearing a suit, Ray rescues her from their leering host and invites her to drop by his studio. That Ray, who is close to 50, doesn’t come on to her means the world given Lee’s history—raped by a family friend as a young child and ogled by powerful men ever since. She’s not interested in posing, as he assumes, but makes herself indispensable by keeping him on schedule and showing his posh clients how to relax in front of a camera—a skill she acquired while posing au naturel for her weird-but-loving father, an amateur shutterbug. She’s mildly obsessed by Ray’s girlfriend, Kiki, the local chanteuse and artist’s model whom Ray has photographed nude many times. But Kiki is history the day Ray shows Lee how to print off her first photograph—the nape of a woman’s neck, her fingers scratching the skin—taken with the Rolleiflex camera he helped her buy. Later, as she thinks back on what they gave and took from each other, she’ll wonder which of them was more destroyed. Scharer sets her viewfinder selectively, focusing on her heroine’s insecurities as much as her accomplishments as an artist; her hunger to be more than “a neck to hold pearls, a slim waist to show off a belt” is contrasted with her habit of solving problems by simply leaving. The price for Lee is steep, but it makes for irresistible reading.
An unfamiliar photo causes a British woman to question her identity and investigate long-hidden family secrets in this debut thriller.
With her father recently having died in an unfortunate accident the day before her birthday, Seraphine Mayes is spending her compassionate leave going through his belongings at Summerbourne, the large Norfolk estate where she was raised. In his things, she finds a photograph she’s never seen before: It shows her mother, father, and older brother, Edwin, with her mother holding a newborn baby. What’s strange, however, is that Seraphine is a twin and there’s no telling whether the baby is her or her brother, Danny. Also, mere hours after the twins’ birth, their mother committed suicide by throwing herself off a cliff near the house. Why had she never seen this photograph, what did it reveal about her past, and who took it? As Seraphine delves deeper into the mysteries of her family, she finds more deaths, coverups, and mysterious disappearances than one ancestry should contain. At the center of all of this is one figure she’s never heard of: Laura, Edwin’s au pair the summer she and Danny were born. If she can just find her, maybe she’ll discover the secret of her birth. Rous’ debut novel is a whirlwind, twisting and turning with new revelations every few pages. Pinging between Seraphine’s search in the present and Laura’s experiences in the past, the reader is never entirely sure of what they know, as each chapter brings new information that may change previous certainties. The ambiance of Summerbourne and the family that inhabits it, from the folly to the gardens to the old gardener who speaks of fairies, adds that gothic touch to what might otherwise have been a generic family-mystery thriller.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Power, truth, and lies intertwine dangerously in Mejia’s debut novel about oppression and resistance with a cunning Latinx teenage heroine.
Medio, an island nation divided by a wall, is literally in between extremes: “On one side there was the might of a nation. On the other, desperation.” Clear parallels to Mexico in imagery and themes abound. Born on the wrong side of the wall without legal papers, 17-year-old brown-skinned Daniela “Dani” Vargas graduates after 5 years of diligent training at an elite finishing school to join the powerful Garcia family as their son’s Primera. In this well-constructed world, an ancient mythology forms the basis for a practice in which husbands have two wives each: Primeras are quick-witted and emotionally restrained while Segundas are brave and passionate. When Dani’s Primera training falters in the face of her ruthless, power-hungry husband, her past overwhelms her present, and she is recruited to spy for the resistance. Excerpts from the Medio School for Girls rulebook precede each chapter, a juxtaposition that effectively reveals Dani’s conflicted self-awakening. An action-packed third-person narrative, smart dialogue, and lush descriptions offer readers a fresh and steely heroine in a contemporary coming-of-age story. This well-crafted fantasy offers a mirror that reflects themes in our own difficult world, namely privilege, immigration, and individualism versus the common good. A queer subplot with sensual tenderness adds rich complexity to the story.