BookPage contributors

We ranked this year’s Halloween offerings from slightly spooky to totally terrifying.


Chasing Ghosts by Marc Hartzman

Scariness level: You can safely read it by flashlight in the middle of a desecrated graveyard.

In Chasing Ghosts, Marc Hartzman gives a lighthearted historical account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave. Using humor, fun illustrations and interesting anecdotes, Hartzman main focus is on humanity’s attempts to reach out to the dead. There are hucksters galore in this entertaining book: mediums, spirit photographers, levitators and automatic writers who used all kinds of gimcrackery and stagecraft to pull off their frauds, separating the susceptible from their healthy skepticism—and money.

So, what are ghosts? Mass hysteria or hoaxes? Reactions to invisible environmental factors or the lingering embodiments of souls? Chasing Ghosts raises these questions but wisely avoids offering definitive answers. So the next time you walk through a sudden cold spot on a humid evening, you might want to consider the possibility that ghosts are chasing you.

(Read the full review by Deborah Mason.)


Horseman by Christina Henry

Scariness level: Strike a match and spark one solitary lantern.

Christina Henry’s Horseman is an atmospheric and haunting reimagining of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Fourteen-year-old Bente “Ben” Van Brunt is the grandson of Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones, whose tale-as-old-as-time romance once sparked rumors of the ghostly Horseman and ran a gangly, awkward schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane out of town. Ben, who is transgender, experiences much frustration with fellow townsfolk who insist on repeatedly misgendering him and accusing him of witchcraft. But there is even more that sets him apart: Ben has visions of the Horseman, who says he is there to protect him.

With visceral visions of nightmares, creepy prose and a pace as fast as the rush of horses’ hooves, Henry’s take on Irving’s classic story is a chilling romp into the forest where sometimes the scariest monsters are all too human.

(Read the full review by Stephanie Cohen-Perez.)


Slewfoot by Brom

Scariness level: Light a few candles. It’s safe enough to read at home in bed but might cause some goosebumps if you’re alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods.

Abitha, a young Englishwoman, marries into the Puritan society of Sutton, Connecticut, and finds herself an outsider due to her sharp tongue and headstrong manner. When her husband is killed in the woods behind her house, Abitha must decide how to live as a widow in a community that seems to be waiting for her to fail.

If only that were all she had to worry about. Deep in the dark of the forest, something ancient, primal and hungry has awoken. Slewfoot is creepy, crawly, bloody fun. Author-illustrator Brom wastes no opportunity to turn up the spooky factor, whether in prose or in the deliciously creepy paintings that illustrate his tale. If you’re looking for a thrilling ride that also has a philosophical soul, grab a copy of Slewfoot—and don’t put it down until you’ve finished it.

(Read the full review by Chris Pickens.)


Reprieve by James Han Mattson

Scariness level: It’s as creepy as sinking into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Dead Marshes and lighting one little candle.

At some point while reading James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, you’ll think, “This can’t be real. This better not be real.” Quigley House in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a full-contact escape room, in which staff are allowed to physically engage with contestants. If things get too intense, a member of the group can shout, “Reprieve!” at which point the game and its torment ends, though no one wins the prize money. Quigley House is not a nefarious entity, but something or someone within it is. Is it one of the actors hired to play ghouls and freaks? Maybe it’s the folks responsible for the house’s ghastly special effects. Or is it someone among the latest group of thrill-seekers who have taken on the challenge of this grisly obstacle course? As the book’s horrifying events unfold, Reprieve can be read as a commentary on, or even an allegory of, American racism. It’s a horror story, certainly, but it’s not as scary as it is deeply disturbing.

(Read the full review by Arlene McKanic.)


Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Scariness level: Imagine encountering three Japanese spirits, each holding one flickering lighter.

Cassandra Khaw’s horror novella brings readers to Japan, where a wedding of questionable taste is about to unfold. Nadia, who is engaged to Faiz, has decided she wants to be married in a haunted house. The couple’s megarich friend Phillip secures a venue for them: a Heian-era mansion in a forest, built on the bones of a bride-to-be and other girls killed to appease her loneliness. Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a brooding horror story that incorporates Japanese mythology in colorful, excruciating detail, including spirits such as yōkai and bake-danuki in addition to the malicious, ghostly bride. Readers looking for bite-size horror on a stormy night will appreciate Khaw’s twisted tale.

(Read the full review by Ralph Harris.)


The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Scariness level: You’ll need most of the lights in your room (and perhaps an extra night light in the bathroom).

A woman in search of a husband finds one with more than his fair share of deadly secrets in the atmospheric, well-plotted The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling. In an alternate version of Victorian-era Britain, known as Great Bretlain, Jane Lawrence understands that a married woman is afforded far more freedom than an unmarried maiden. Bachelor Augustine Lawrence, the only doctor in town, seems like a fine option. He agrees, under one simple condition: Jane must never visit his ancestral home. Anyone who has ever read a gothic novel knows exactly where this is going, but Starling does a magnificent job steering clear of the obvious plot beats in this white-knuckle reading experience. For those who crave intense and detailed gothic horror, or those who just want more Guillermo del Toro a la Crimson Peak vibes in their life, this is a must-read.

(Read the full review by Amanda Diehl.)


This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

Scariness level: Keep all the lights in your house on—and maybe unplug your smart devices and toss them into the backyard.

In powerfully immersive first-person prose, Gus Moreno’s debut novel provides an inside view of a grief-stricken husband’s worst nightmare. This Thing Between Us feels like a fever dream as Thiago Alvarez, in a one-sided conversation with his late wife, Vera, reexamines the tragic events that led to her death and recounts what’s happened since. A few months prior, Thiago and Vera’s smart speaker started playing music without their request. Odd packages arrived, even though no orders had been placed. And then an alarm clock didn’t go off as it should’ve, throwing their schedule into chaos and placing Vera in the exact wrong place at the worst possible time. Now Vera’s gone, and Thiago is lost. And that’s just the beginning.

There’s no question that this novel delivers the fright. Bodies drop. Violence springs up seemingly out of nowhere. But the most surprising and challenging aspect of This Thing Between Us is that it’s as emotionally taxing as it is terrifying—a novel of domestic conflict and suspense as well as horror.

(Read the full review by Carole V. Bell.)

How many lights does it take to feel safe while reading these books?

Our sincere apologies to the rest of the novels on your TBR list, but these debuts deserve a spot at the top. Based on other novels you’ve loved, we’ve recommended which of these six hot titles you’ll most enjoy.


FOR FANS OF 
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

★ THE READING LIST

Former book editor Sara Nisha Adams attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. This relationship also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.

(read the full review by Stephenie Harrison)


FOR FANS OF
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

★ SISTERS IN ARMS

In Kaia Alderson’s witty and powerful debut novel, World War II is a conflict not only between nations but also within the hearts of Grace Steele and Eliza Jones, two Black women serving in the U.S. Army’s 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. It’s a chance to prove themselves to their restrictive families and a prejudiced society. Sisters in Arms chronicles their story, which spans the constraints of New York City and the perils of war-torn Europe. During their service, their bond is tested, but Grace and Eliza learn to stick together to survive, and their romantic relationships enhance their personal stories. This is an outstanding historical novel that succeeds at celebrating the accomplishments of the Six Triple Eight Battalion through the lives of two audacious Black women.

(read the full review by Edith Kanyagia)


FOR FANS OF 
Deep River by Karl Marlantes and Barkskins by Annie Proulx

★ DAMNATION SPRING

Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, follows aging logger Rich Gundersen and his family through 1977, a year of significant change in Northern California’s redwood forest. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Rich’s wife, Colleen, that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street. Davidson grew up in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She’s studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.

(read the full review by Alden Mudge)


FOR FANS OF
Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes and J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions

WE ARE THE BRENNANS

Tracey Lange’s debut novel tells the story of a large Irish American family grappling with the weight of secrets after Sunday, the only Brennan daughter, returns home after five years away. We Are the Brennans is well plotted, offering plenty of action, but it shines brightest in depicting family relationships, love mixed with resentment and guilt, and in its character development. We root for the Brennans the whole way through, waiting for them to face hard truths about one another and, we hope, to move forward together.

(read the full review by Sarah McCraw Crow)


FOR FANS OF
Swing Time by Zadie Smith and There There by Tommy Orange

THE ETERNAL AUDIENCE OF ONE

Rwandan-born Namibian writer Rémy Ngamije’s sharp-witted and incisive debut, The Eternal Audience of One, paints a revealing portrait of its peripatetic protagonist and the many places he’s called home. Séraphin Turihamwe is a displaced Rwandan who feels most himself in Cape Town, South Africa, a place that doesn’t welcome Black immigrants, and Ngamije brilliantly explores the irony in Séraphin’s identities. The story unfolds through a collection of scenes all revolving around Séraphin’s social life, his friends and the women he dates, that explore racism and social hierarchies. Ngamije’s writing is beautiful, his observations original and precise, his sense of place unsurpassed. Every bit of insight, succinctly and humorously presented, will cause readers to stop and think.

(read the full review by Carole V. Bell)


FOR FANS OF
The Leavers by Lisa Ko and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

EDGE CASE

In YZ Chin’s Edge Case, Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. After Marlin’s father dies, Marlin disappears. Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status and daily racial insults. Chin is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball. Every chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love.

(read the full review by Arlene McKanic)

Based on other novels you’ve loved, we’ve recommended which of these six hot titles you’ll most enjoy.

Big names, big personalities and big legacies. The subjects of this fall's most captivating biographies need no introduction.


Mad at the World
By William Souder

John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the promise of wealth beyond the veil of desolation and the wretched impossibility of such a promise. Steinbeck’s other epic, East of Eden, illustrates the ragged desperation of human nature, wreaking destruction rather than carrying hope. William Souder’s bracing Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck vividly portrays the brooding and moody writer who could never stop writing and who never fit comfortably into the society in which he lived.

Souder, whose biography of John James Audubon was a Pulitzer finalist, traces Steinbeck’s love of stories to his childhood. As a teenager, Steinbeck immersed himself in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which he translated later in life, and in adventure tales and classics such as Treasure Island, Madame Bovary and Crime and Punishment. This early reading gave him glimpses into the shadowy corners of the human heart and provided him with models for telling tales of people engaged in heroic struggles against the injustices of their eras.

Steinbeck was a born storyteller who was a bit out of step with his times; many of his social realist novels appeared during the innovations of modernism. But Steinbeck remains widely read and relevant today, as vibrantly illuminated by Mad at the World.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


Eleanor
By David Michaelis

Fueled by 11 years of research, the new biography of Eleanor Roosevelt by David Michaelis (N. C. Wyeth) is both compelling and comprehensive, making use of previously untapped archival sources and interviews. Michaelis, who actually met Roosevelt when he was just 4 years old, trains his careful attention on virtually all aspects of her incredible life and times to craft a fast-moving, engrossing narrative.

Eleanor follows its subject from birth to her death in 1962. Roosevelt’s life journey took her from a shy, often ignored child, whose mother shamed her with the nickname “Granny,” to a dynamic first lady and then a “world maker” when, as one of the country’s first delegates to the United Nations, she spearheaded the adoption of the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history. Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was also entwined with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Eleanor was so intrinsically linked with the New Deal and World War II, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she was born in 1884 and was almost 36 years old when the 19th Amendment passed in 1920.

Michaelis never neglects the politics and history that marked the life of this remarkable, fascinating woman. At the same time, his impeccable storytelling and seamless integration of dialogue and quotations allow him to create an intimate, lively and emotional portrait that unfolds like a good novel. As America faces another challenging period in its history, there may be no better time for readers to turn to the life of one of our nation’s truly great leaders for inspiration.

—Deborah Hopkinson


His Truth Is Marching On
By Jon Meacham

It’s been only a few months since the death of civil rights giant John Lewis, and though eloquent tributes from leaders like Barack Obama have attempted to sum up his legacy, it will ultimately fall to future generations to fully assess his contributions to the cause of racial equality in America. One of our most prominent contemporary historians, Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, offers an appreciative early assessment in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.

Meacham frankly admits that his book makes no attempt at a full-scale biography of Lewis. Instead, he focuses on the tumultuous period from 1957 to 1966, when Lewis rose from obscurity in a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, to national prominence in the civil rights movement. This “quietly charismatic, forever courtly, implacably serene” man was motivated by a fierce commitment to nonviolence and above all by his unswerving attachment to the vision he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of a “beloved community”—in Lewis’ words, “nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth.”

Meacham makes a persuasive case for his claim that “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.” At a moment when events have once again forced Americans to confront the evils of racism, His Truth Is Marching On will inspire both courage and hope.

—Harvey Freedenberg


The Man Who Ate Too Much
By John Birdsall

American cookery rests squarely on the shoulders of the late, great James Beard. His life and experiences are extremely well known and have been written about extensively. Yet in his new book, The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, John Birdsall—a gastronomic expert in his own right, having twice won a James Beard Award—gives foodies a fresh, intimate look at Beard. He writes with candor, wit and vibrancy, as if Beard himself is speaking through Birdsall’s pen, retelling his colorful life and inviting us into his world. And Birdsall doesn’t mince words, delivering a raw, revealing look into how and why Beard had to tread cautiously as he navigated the world as a closeted gay man during the often unforgiving 20th century.

Birdsall’s strength as a food writer shines, with mouthwateringly descriptive prose about cuisine peppered throughout the book. He also provides touchstones to what was going on globally, including both World Wars, the World’s Fair of 1939, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the civil rights movement, giving context for the major events that affected Beard’s life.

The Man Who Ate Too Much is meticulously researched. Additionally, Birdsall’s insightful style allows readers to feel Beard’s successes and failures, highs and lows, and revelations and discoveries as they become deeply familiar with the family, friends, colleagues and rivals who impacted his life.

—Becky Libourel Diamond


The Dead Are Arising
By Les Payne and Tamara Payne

Pulitzer Prize winner Les Payne’s monumental and absorbing The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X peers into the gaps left by Malcolm X’s autobiography, taking us more deeply into the intimate details of his life, work and death.

In 1990, investigative reporter Payne began conducting hundreds of interviews with Malcolm X’s family members, childhood friends, classmates and bodyguards, as well as with FBI agents, photographers, U.N. representatives, African revolutionaries and presidents and the two men falsely imprisoned for killing Malcolm X. Drawing on these conversations, Payne traces Malcolm X’s story from his childhood in Omaha, Nebraska, through his teenage years in Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm learned to resist the racial provocations of his white classmates. Payne chronicles Malcolm X’s time in prison, where fellow inmate John E. Bembry challenged Malcolm X by telling the young prisoner, “If I had some brains, I’d use them.” This encouraged Malcolm X to read all he could and to not only engage others with words but also support those words with facts from experts. In vivid detail, Payne retells the events leading up to Malcolm X’s assassination, offering fresh information about those involved.

The Dead Are Arising is essential reading. Completed after the author’s death in 2018 by Tamara Payne, Les’ daughter and the book’s primary researcher, it captures the vibrant voice of a revolutionary whose words resonate powerfully in our own times.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


Red Comet
By Heather Clark

In Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, biographer and Plath scholar Heather Clark lifts the poet’s life from the Persephone myth it has become and examines it in all its complexity. Clark admirably identifies and resists the morbid tendency to look at every moment, every work, as a signpost on the way to Plath’s tragic suicide. She also liberates the supporting cast of Plath’s life from the damning and one-dimensional roles they often occupy as part of the death-myth of Plath’s life. Her husband, Ted Hughes; his lover, Assia Wevill; Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath—they are not villains but people who created art of their own, who loved and fought with Plath, who were not always good or right.

Clark’s detailed, multidimensional treatment infuses Plath’s life and work with dignity, character and a sense of interiority. We get the full scope of Plath’s incredible talent here, rightfully established as complicated, radiant and worthy of deep consideration. Plath was a genius. She was a woman living in a time of great social restriction for women. She had complicated and human relationships. She was mentally ill, and this mental illness both illumined her work and colored her perspective on the world. All of these things are held alongside one another without conflict in Clark’s book. Red Comet allows Plath to emerge from the shadows, shining in all her intricacy and artistry.

—Anna Spydell

Big names, big personalities and big legacies. The subjects of this fall's most captivating biographies need no introduction. Mad at the World By William Souder John Steinbeck just might be the novelist for our time. In his sprawling epic The Grapes of Wrath, he captured Americans’ peculiar yearning for a life not their own, the […]

Summer 2020 has been a season of big shifts, including in the world of fiction. We’re delighted to give a warm welcome to these new voices and their debut novels.


Cherie Dimaline, author of Empire of Wild

The author: Writer and activist Cherie Dimaline is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis Community in Ontario. She has published five books in Canada and makes her U.S. adult debut with Empire of Wild.

The book: Drawing inspiration from legends of the werewolf-like rougarou, Dimaline’s powerful and inventive novel follows a woman who is searching for the truth behind her husband’s mysterious disappearance and even more suspicious return.

For fans of: Literary thrillers that draw from the author’s cultural heritage, such as LaRose by Louise Erdrich.

Read it for: Indigenous empowerment and a flawless mixture of supernatural events and realistic characters.


Raven Leilani, author of Luster

The author: A former student of Zadie Smith (who hyped Luster earlier this year in Harper’s Bazaar), Raven Leilani has won multiple prizes for her fiction and poetry and is the Axinn Foundation Writer-in-Residence at NYU. 

The book: This gritty novel explores many appetites—for sex, companionship, attention and money—and what happens when those lusts are sated.

For fans of: Spike Lee’s 2017 reboot of She’s Gotta Have It and heavy-hitting millennial writers like Ling Ma and Catherine Lacey.

Read it for: Leilani’s cerebral, raw writing and keen social observations—especially about the truths that some people don’t want to see.


Rónán Hession, author of Leonard and Hungry Paul

The author: Dublin-based author Rónán Hession is a social worker and songwriter who has released three lyrical acoustic albums as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. 

The book: Hession explores the ordinary lives of two everyday guys in their 30s. Leonard’s mom has just died, and he’s working through his grief and loneliness. Hungry Paul lives at home with his parents and is occasionally accosted with motivational speeches by his older sister. These two lifelong friends go to work (or not, as the case may be), meet new people, try new things—the stuff of everyday life.

For fans of: Stories of lives well lived from Maeve Binchy and Mark Haddon.

Read it for: The reminder that we’re all just doing our best. Simple and straightforward stories often get overlooked in our noisy world, but not by Hession.


Alex Landragin, author of Crossings

The author: French Armenian Australian writer Alex Landragin is a former author of Lonely Planet travel guides.

The book: Crossings is composed of three imaginative tales: a ghost story written by Charles Baudelaire, a German Jewish exile’s dark love story on the precipice of the Nazi invasion of Paris and a memoir by a woman who lives through seven generations. The reader can read each story individually or follow the “Baroness” style, following directions to leap between the three tales.

For fans of: Books that play with storytelling structure, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

Read it for: The totally unexpected reading experience, which is as incredibly fun as it is nuanced and engaging.


Charlotte McConaghy, author of Migrations

The author: Charlotte McConaghy has published eight books in her native Australia and has worked in script development for film and TV for several years.

The book: Set in a near-future world that’s facing the mass extinction of animals, McConaghy’s U.S. debut follows a young woman named Franny who, grappling with a lifelong inability to define the nature of home, joins a fishing crew to follow the last migration of Arctic terns.

For fans of: Emotionally resonant tales like Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

Read it for: A message of hope when all feels hopeless.


Lysley Tenorio, author of The Son of Good Fortune

The author: Lysley Tenorio is a Filipino American professor at Saint Mary’s College of California whose stories have been adapted for the stage in New York City and San Francisco.

The book: Excel, a young Filipino immigrant living in California, lives paycheck to paycheck with his mother, a former low-budget movie star who now scams men online. When Excel meets a girl named Sab, the two run away and find themselves at the whimsical desert community of Hello City.

For fans of: Unique perspectives of the immigrant experience, such as The Leavers by Lisa Ko.

Read it for: A powerful examination of the bond between mother, son and motherland.


Sanaë Lemoine, author of The Margot Affair

The author: Born in Paris to a Japanese mother and French father, Sanaë Lemoine was raised in France and Australia. She now lives in New York, where she has worked as a recipe writer and cookbook editor.

The book: Margot Louve is the product of a long affair between a married public figure and a well-known actress. In her final year of high school, Margot decides that she is ready to expose the lie and go public with her story—anonymously. 

For fans of: Stories of young women searching for truth, such as Saltwater by Jessica Andrews and Actress by Anne Enright.

Read it for: A realistic Parisian atmosphere and complicated, nuanced female characters.


Odie Lindsey, author of Some Go Home

The author: Combat veteran Odie Lindsey is the Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.

The book: Inspired by the author’s work as an editor of the Mississippi Encyclopedia, Some Go Home is set in the fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississippi, where white residents are forced to face buried truths during a retrial for the violent, decades-old murder of a Black man.

For fans of: The Bitter Southerner and Southern novels that wrestle with the region’s complicated, brutal history.

Read it for: Reflections on how the sins of our ancestors replay in our own lives.


Cherie Dimaline photo by Wenzdae Brewster. Raven Leilani photo by Evan Davis. Rónán Hession photo by Barry Delany. Alex Landragin photo by Helga Salwe. Charlotte McConaghy photo by Emma Daniels. Lysley Tenorio photo by Laura Bianchi. Sanaë Lemoine photo by Gieves Anderson. Odie Lindsey photo by Dana DeLoca.

Summer 2020 has been a season of big shifts, including in the world of fiction. We’re delighted to give a warm welcome to these new voices and their debut novels.

Short fiction can be as emotionally complex as songs and as precise as poetry. The writers who do it well leave us in awe. Three new short story collections from masters of the form offer all the power and surprise of great novels.

If I Had Two WingsIf I Had Two Wings

A good short story requires focus. A novel can expand and digress and reckon with its form anew with each passing chapter, but short stories must be tighter, more concentrated, like an espresso shot. In his new collection, If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan proves once again that he belongs to an elite group of short fiction writers who can master plot and character to create perfectly balanced little miracles of focus and style. Returning to his fictional locale of Tims Creek, North Carolina, Kenan takes us on 10 captivating journeys of change, loss, redemption, salvation and even a little magic. And while the stories share a geographic connection in some way or another, each feels like it exists in its own rich, fully realized space.

What reaches out and grabs the reader right away, though, is not the place but the power of voice infused into every story, from that of a young girl who encounters a magical man in a creek, to a man reconnecting with an old flame after the death of his lover from AIDS, to an old woman who’s put in front of TV cameras as a miracle worker, to a working-class man who runs into a rock star during a trip to New York City. The characters’ voices will leave you wanting to reach out to them again, to read on even after their stories have ended. Kenan’s collection is a treasure.

—Matthew Jackson

In the ValleyIn the Valley

Ron Rash is a poet, novelist and author of award-winning short stories whose work is steeped in the history and culture of Appalachia. His latest collection, In the Valley, features nine haunting stories set in rural North Carolina from the Civil War to the present, followed by a novella continuing the saga of Serena Pemberton, the maniacal wife of logger George Pemberton from Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena

Each of the stories encapsulates a scene from the backwoods of Appalachia, often portraying a character struggling to do the right thing when given the opportunity to stand up to evil. In “The Baptism,” a small-town pastor faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to baptize a man he knows is a child molester. “Neighbors” explores the senselessness of the Civil War, which pitted friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor. Most memorably, “Ransom” paints an indelible portrait of a young woman kidnapped and forced into opioid addiction, all to satisfy a man’s revenge against those who caused his daughter’s death.

Serena, on the other hand, is the epitome of evil itself. In this sequel, Serena returns from Brazil to North Carolina, where she plans to harvest mahogany. She’s at risk of losing a large sum if she doesn’t meet a seemingly impossible deadline for clear-cutting the last ridge in a vast forest, so she pushes her crew relentlessly, leading to several deaths and amputations—inconsequential, in her mind, as long as she meets her deadline.

Serena’s greed and its long-term effect on the environment find echoes in the present, as environmental activists fight to preserve migration routes, ancient dwellings and petroglyphs from mining and drilling.

Rash profoundly immerses readers in the Appalachia he calls home. His latest collection is highly recommended not only for readers who value protecting our environment but also for anyone who enjoys well-told stories of justice and revenge.

—Deborah Donovan

Animal SpiritAnimal Spirit

When a short story is operating at its peak, it’s able to convey a novel’s worth of emotional depth and allure. Francesca Marciano possesses this gift, a special magic that allows her to say so much in just a few thousand words, as demonstrated by her new collection, Animal Spirit.

The six stories all feature a character at some kind of crossroads, often having arrived suddenly and with loads of emotional baggage. And in each story, animals arrive to shift the balance, from a small white dog on a road at night to a flock of troublesome seagulls that represent much more than a nuisance on a Roman terrace.

Marciano displays a spellbinding sense of control over her characters, and she does so with surprising brevity and well-composed pacing. In some tales, the narrative perspective shifts so quickly that another writer might have lost the emotional thread that knits it all together, but for Marciano, these shifts feel like an essential part of her deft, intense style. There’s a sense of confidence in each sentence that allows the reader to be as vulnerable as her characters.

Animal Spirit is a passionate, compelling exercise in the fine art of short fiction. It’s proof that the most intimate narratives are often the most powerful. 

—Matthew Jackson

Three new short story collections from masters of the form offer all the power and surprise of great novels.

We asked eight YA authors, first-timers and seasoned veterans alike, to talk about their new releases and reflect on their creative journeys.


THE FRESHMEN


Roseanne A. Brown

A refugee and a princess find themselves on a romantic, dangerous collision course in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, a West Africa-inspired fantasy. Brown raises the stakes by exploring how we all have a responsibility to right the wrongs of injustice. (Click here to read the full review.)

What do you hope readers will love about A Song of Wraiths and Ruin?
The protagonists represent characters I wish I’d gotten to read when I was growing up. Their struggles are informed by the emotional roller coaster of my teen years, so I hope readers see themselves in these characters’ lows and triumphs.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be published?
I got the call when I was living in Japan; my agent called me at 5 a.m. to break the news, and I was so delirious with sleep that I was half-convinced I was dreaming. As a black immigrant, the thought that I could actually get anything traditionally published had always felt about as likely as me becoming the first person on Mars. Some days, I wake up and it still doesn’t feel real.

A year from now, what impact do you hope A Song of Wraiths and Ruin will have made on readers?
It’s difficult to even imagine what the world might look like a year from now, but I hope that A Song of Wraiths and Ruin will help readers learn that they can draw their greatest strength from the parts of their identities the world has taught them to hate. I also hope the book helps them to know that healing from trauma is often a messy, painful process with no clear finish line, but it’s a journey that is always worth it.


Lora Beth Johnson

Andra wakes up after a long journey to a new planet and slowly puts together a horrifying truth: She’s been asleep for hundreds of years longer than she should have been. Goddess in the Machine offers a vision of how society, technology and language will be transformed over time that’s thoughtful and inventive but never weighs down the emotional urgency of Andra’s plight. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Goddess in the Machine?
The dialect of some of the characters is my own rendition of a futuristic English, based on trends in linguistic evolution. It was difficult to develop and a challenge to write in, but it’s been amazing to experience early readers using it to communicate with me.

A year from now, what impact do you hope your novel will have made on readers?
It would be cool if readers were using my futuristic dialect in casual conversation! I also hope the book helps readers realize the power of their words—the way that language literally creates and re-creates the world around us.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be published?
Honestly, I still don’t think it’s hit me. Probably one day, I’ll be perusing the shelves at my local bookstore and see my book and just start weeping.


Laura Wood

In the summer of 1929, Lou Trevelyan feels hemmed in by her small Cornwall town, under pressure to grow up and settle down, until she is swept into the intoxicating, glamorous world of the wealthy Cardew siblings. Wood creates an atmosphere in A Sky Painted Gold that readers can dive into headfirst. Lou’s whole world is tinted with an undercurrent of magic. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in A Sky Painted Gold?
I’m proud of how personal it is. I love Cornwall so much, and A Sky Painted Gold is a very heartfelt expression of that. I worked hard to try to capture the beauty and magic of the place, and the way it makes me feel. My family are Cornish and I included stories that my Nan told me. For example, my great-grandmother was called Midge, just like like Lou’s mother, and anecdotes from her life are woven through the story. It’s another way in which I feel close to it, a way that the story is a part of myself. It makes you very vulnerable as a writer, but I’m proud of that—it’s really the book of my heart.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
Setting the book in the 1920s meant that I could go all out on the clothes and the music and the parties. It’s decadent, not just in the Gatsby–esque sense of the word, but in the pleasure it takes in small things, in warm seas and moonlit swims and the whisper of a silk dress.

How did you feel when you found out you were going to be published?
Stunned. I’d had the idea for such a long time, and it really is an amalgamation of all of my favorite things. I knew I would want to read it, but it’s a quiet book in a lot of ways—delicate, maybe a little old-fashioned—so I wasn’t sure anyone would want to publish it.


THE SOPHOMORES


Rory Power

In the small town where her mom grew up, Margot uncovers darkness lurking in the poisonous roots of her family tree. Whip-smart and suspenseful, Burn Our Bodies Down builds to a fantastically unsettling resolution. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Burn Your Bodies Down?
I’m most proud of Margot, the main character. She’s grown up in an emotionally abusive household, so she has a particular mindset that is often at odds with what we expect and want from a thriller protagonist. Rather than always pushing for more answers, Margot often defaults to ignoring what’s going on around her, because she’s afraid of finding out something that will hurt her. Balancing that mindset with the needs of the story was tricky, and of everything in the book, I’m most proud of how that turned out.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I hope they’ll love getting to hang out in the town of Phalene. It was a joy to create this run-down farming town in the middle of nowhere, full of secrets and creepy cornfields.

How was writing your second book different than your first book?
Burn
Our Bodies Down was a more difficult book to construct. With Wilder Girls, I took great care to cut my characters off from the world, which meant I could bring in speculative elements without having to consider any response from law enforcement or the media, but Burn operates on a larger scale and interacts with the world around it, which was entirely new to me.

What’s one of your favorite things you’ve heard from readers since your first book, Wilder Girls, was published?
I’ve been so lucky to receive a lot of really wonderful messages from readers, but I’m particularly fond of readers responding to the queer representation in the book. I know how much it’s meant to me to be able to see myself reflected in literature, so to be able to give that to a reader is an incredible feeling.


Liara Tamani

Carli and Rex have promising basketball careers ahead of them, but their whirlwind romance is challenged by loss, grief and the pressure to succeed. All the Things We Never Knew offers a raw, honest portrait of the bond between two teens on and off the court. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in All the Things We Never Knew?
I’m most proud that Carli and Rex’s love feels real. Experiencing love for the first time is such an overwhelming sensation. I remember feeling like every ounce of my teenage body was buzzing with it. But knowing the feeling and putting it into words are different. I had to dive deep into their psyches and find language to articulate the very specific love between Rex and Carli.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I hope readers will fall in love with Rex and Carli. The book alternates between their perspectives, so readers will get to know them both and see both sides of their first love. Carli is fiery; Rex is sensitive. They’re both deep thinkers who are dealing with family drama and pain. Their love journey is a messy, complicated one, but there’s lots of talking and ruminations along the way. In those shared exchanges and private reflections, I hope readers will come to know and care about Carli and Rex deeply.

How was writing this book different from writing your first book?
The process for writing my first book, Calling My Name, was meandering and exploratory. That novel begins when Taja, the main character, is 12 years old and ends when she’s 17, so it spans several years. It’s structured in vignettes and short stories that I wrote out of order. I didn’t outline at all and allowed the book to come together piece by piece. Writing All the Things We Never Knew was more straightforward. Its events only span a couple of months of Carli’s and Rex’s junior year, so the plot is much tighter. I started with an outline (which was super short, because I still like to give the characters space to make their own decisions), and I wrote it chronologically.

What’s one of your favorite things you’ve heard from readers since your first book was published?
Many teens have written me to say Calling My Name inspired them to be themselves, and every time, I’m filled with so much gratitude. There’s so much pressure for young people to fit in⎯really, for all of us to fit in. So many people sacrifice so much of themselves to feel like they belong. It’s hard to be completely free and face whatever judgement comes with it. It takes bravery, which is something that I’m constantly working on and trying to inspire with my words.


THE UPPERCLASSMEN


Tanaz Bhathena

After her parents are murdered by the king’s army, Gul’s desire for vengeance could destroy the kingdom—and with it, everyone she has come to care about. Hunted by the Sky is a medieval India-inspired fantasy that’s beautiful, brutal, fresh and feminist. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Hunted by the Sky?
It’s in a completely different genre! I spent 10 years focusing on contemporary fiction. I’d dabble in fantasy, but I never had the courage to write a whole novel—until now.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I’m biased, but I love the book’s medieval India-inspired setting and I hope readers will love it too! I want them to be able to escape to a world of magic, romance and fierce women warriors.

How has your readership impacted your writing over the course of your career?
My readership definitely keeps me on track about ensuring accurate representation in my books—especially about communities I don’t belong to. But other than that, I find readers very open to the stories I want to tell. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I am my first reader and if I don’t like the story, no one else will.

What themes have you carried forward from your previous books into this new novel?
Love and courage are common themes in all my novels, and they’re usually explored through flawed main characters. Gul is a fierce girl who loves deeply, but her mission of avenging her parents’ murders sets off a chain of events with disastrous consequences. There are warrior women with strong bonds of sisterhood, but they are also thieves who  engage in vigilante justice. Love and courage bring out the best and the worst in us, even when we are aiming for great things.


Lori M. Lee

When Sirscha’s best friend, Saengo, is killed in battle and Sirscha unexpectedly resurrects her, the awakening of Sirscha’s magical powers forces the two to undertake a dangerous journey to the Dead Wood and its ruler, the ancient and mysterious Spider King. The horrors faced by the heroines of Forest of Souls echo their inner conflicts as they confront terrifying spirits and bloody battles as well as fear, prejudice and loss. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Forest of Souls?
I’m super proud of the journey my main character Sirscha takes in Forest of Souls. Many of her insecurities were modeled after my own at a young age, and her path towards self-acceptance and self-worth is one I hope resonates with others as well.

What do you hope readers will love about the book?
I want the story to linger inside readers. I hope they will love the friendship between Sirscha and Saengo. It was really important to me to portray a friendship between girls that was unconditional and sweet but also real and complex. I hope that Sirscha’s path toward self-acceptance resonates as well.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to be a writer from a very early age. I’ve always loved stories because they hold a very specific escapist kind of magic. Writing was my way of claiming that magic for myself.

Editor’s note: In the print issue of BookPage, we placed Lori M. Lee under the ‘Freshmen’ header, incorrectly suggesting that Forest of Souls is Lee’s first YA book. Lee is the author of two previous YA novels, Gates of Thread and Stone and The Infinite.


Rachel Lynn Solomon

On the last day of high school, Rowan is determined to beat her nemesis, Neil, in the annual senior class scavenger hunt. Today Tonight Tomorrow is a puzzle, a nostalgic reflection on a rite of passage and a delicious romance. (Click here to read the full review.)

What are you most proud of in Today Tonight Tomorrow?
When I started writing Today Tonight Tomorrow, I knew the book would take place over 24 hours on the last day of senior year. I also knew I didn’t want to include lengthy flashback scenes, because I wanted it to feel like a snapshot of this one day that changes everything. I decided to scatter ephemera throughout the book—emails, lists, receipts and other tidbits—to enhance the relationship. I’m proud that I was able to tell a full story, a full romance, with this short timeline. My publisher did an incredible job with the design of the book, and the final version feels like a scrapbook of Rowan’s high school journey.

What do you hope readers will love about Today Tonight Tomorrow?
The slow burn of the rivals-to-lovers relationship! Rowan begins the book despising Neil—though readers will probably pick up on some hidden attraction—and gradually discovers the person she’s spending the last day of high school with is completely different from the nemesis whose demise she spent four years plotting. Over the course of 24 hours that take them all over the city, they share secrets and fears and a slow dance in an empty library. “Just kiss already” is what I hope readers will think as they turn the pages.

How has your readership impacted your writing over the course of your career?
It’s made me so wildly grateful. When I saw the reaction my first book received from Jewish readers, I made a vow to myself that I’d only write Jewish protagonists moving forward. Some of my characters are religious and some aren’t, but they are all Jewish, and that is a vital piece of their identity, as well as mine. There are still so few Jewish characters in contemporary YA novels, and I feel very proud to contribute to this small but important category.

What themes have you carried forward from your previous books into this new novel?
Every female protagonist I write is ambitious and full of yearning, with all the messiness that comes with wanting something that may be just out of reach. I think that sense of yearning appears in all my books in slightly different ways—yearning for another person, a dream school, a future career. In Today Tonight Tomorrow, Rowan wants to write romance novels, a passion she hides because she’s been judged in the past. Alongside her real-life romance, her story is about gaining the confidence to embrace what she loves without shame.


 

Photo credits: Roseanne A. Brown photo by Ashley Hirasuna; Lora Beth Johnson photo by Kailan Sindelar; Rory Power photo by Henriette Lazaridis; Liara Tamani photo by Seneca Shahara Brand; Tanaz Bhathena photo by Nettie Photography; Lori M. Lee photo by PrettyGeeky Photography; Rachel Lynn Solomon photo by Sabreen Lakhani.

We asked eight YA authors, first-timers and seasoned veterans alike, to talk about their new releases and reflect on their creative journeys. THE FRESHMEN Roseanne A. Brown A refugee and a princess find themselves on a romantic, dangerous collision course in A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, a West Africa-inspired fantasy. Brown raises the stakes by […]

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