Laura Sackton

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In this collection of lightly interconnected stories, Gothataone Moeng invites readers into the lives of people in contemporary Botswana. Her characters, mostly women, are concerned with daily challenges but often consumed by loftier, more existential worries. They ponder what they want and how to get it; they excavate their own histories, looking for patterns; they butt up against (and often reject) societal expectations. All the while, they gossip with friends, fall in and out of love, go to work and complain about the weather.

There is little drama or fanfare in these stories. Instead, Moeng explores intrapersonal dilemmas and cultural changes by writing about the seemingly banal. In straightforward but elegant prose, full of sensory details, she homes in on scenes of ordinary intimacy: Three sisters discuss how to take care of their aging mother. A young woman returning home after a sojourn in America is startled by how much both she and her family have changed. University students muddle their way through first crushes, loves and sexual experiences. 

In particular, Moeng beautifully captures the varied textures of marital relationships. In one story, a grieving widow whose mourning period is coming to an end struggles to ease back into the role that her friends and family expect of her. In another story, a married woman unhappily prepares for her husband’s annual visit to his cattle station, revealing the cracks in their marriage and their conflicting expectations and ideas about desire and responsibility. 

The unique women in Call and Response all relate to their homes, husbands, families and careers in vastly different ways. Through their stories, Moeng delves into the divide between rural and urban life, the constraints of marriage, the role of education in shaping how people think about the world and so much more. Quiet but powerful, Call and Response illuminates the complexities of a place and the characters who live there. Most of all, it’s about the messy striving and seeking we all do as we move from childhood into adulthood.

Gothataone Moeng’s stories delve into the divide between rural and urban life, the constraints of marriage, the role of education in shaping how people think about the world and so much more.
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Marisa Crane’s debut novel is a remarkable feat of speculative fiction, its premise so strangely familiar that to call it speculative feels like a misnomer. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is set in an off-kilter version of the United States, but the emotional truths it untangles are so sharp that its intricate world building feels less like fiction and more like an excavation of the country we already live in.

In a U.S. governed by the ominous Department of Balance, criminals are given an extra shadow instead of being incarcerated, which serves as a reminder to themselves and everyone they meet of what they’ve done. This system, enforced by state-run surveillance, creates a culture of pervasive public shame: Shadesters, as they’re called, are shunned wherever they go and have few civil rights.

Kris is a Shadester whose wife dies while giving birth to their daughter, who is immediately given a second shadow because of the death. Grieving and unprepared, Kris stumbles through motherhood in a daze. She worries and wonders and analyzes, observes her daughter, gets lost in her own brain. Her first-person narration is dreamy and frenetic, so intimate that it’s often difficult for the reader to bear, as well as nearly impossible to know how much time is passing. 

How does a person repent and forgive and reinvent? What kind of healing can only occur in community, and what kind of healing requires privacy? What happens when mistakes and misunderstandings are punished in the same way as abuse and deliberate violence? These are the turbulent, murky and unsolvable questions that roil inside of Kris, that define her life—but slowly, the kid grows up, and Kris is drawn back into the world. 

Ruptures and tension propel the plot forward, but there’s a deliberate, underlying slowness to the story, too. On the surface, it’s all explosive force; underneath, it’s introspective and intimate. And always, Crane’s prose is gorgeous. Short, searing sentences depict ordinary moments perfectly, while long, melancholy meanderings are broken up by bleak humor and inventive pop quizzes that speak to the impossibilities of living through grief.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is an assured and surprising ode to queer family. It’s an untame story about motherhood and survival and the quiet, daily work of building a livable world. It’s about what humans can bear and what we can get used to, about the choices we make and that are made for us, about the worst things we do to each other and the most astonishing. Some books have the power to wake you up, shake you out of the old and push you toward something new and exciting and a little scary. This is one.

Some books have the power to wake you up, shake you out of the old and push you toward something new and exciting and a little scary. I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is one of those books.
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Catherine Lacey’s fourth novel, Biography of X, is a feat of technical brilliance, a fictional biography about a mysterious and notorious 20th-century artist known as X. The biographer is X’s widow, C.M. Lucca, who insists that she’s telling X’s story, but as her research into her wife’s past reveals more and more shocking surprises, it becomes clear that she’s actually telling her own story—and that of the country she lives in. In the novel’s America, most of the South seceded in 1945 to become the Southern Territory, a fascist theocracy divided from the Northern and Western territories by a wall and ruled by a ruthless autocratic dictatorship.

Though the novel’s world building lacks a critical engagement with race, which Lacey only mentions in passing, and though it sometimes feels more like a stylized thought experiment than a book with a beating, human heart, Biography of X is still a stunning achievement. It is nearly impossible not to get lost in Lacey’s exquisitely detailed version of America. Nothing about it feels fictional, from the extensive footnotes, images and assorted ephemera included, to the slightly altered references to real people and events (activist Emma Goldman and David Bowie, among others).

Even more compelling is the assuredness with which Lacey inhabits the persona of C.M. Lucca. There’s something unhinged and upsetting—but legible, even understandable, at times—in Lucca’s unwavering devotion to her late wife, even as she spirals deeper into the disturbing realities of X’s life and work. Lucca isn’t merely an unreliable narrator; her involvement in the story she’s trying to tell is too complicated and multilayered to be explained through a simple narrative device. Through Lucca, and through X, Lacey explores bigger, thornier questions about authorship and identity, art and futility, obsession and abuse. She pokes at reality and perspective, probing what it means to seek out the truth of another person, even—maybe especially—when that truth proves impossible to find.

Biography of X is a dazzling literary chimera, at once an epic and chilling alternate history of the United States and an intimate portrait of a woman coming apart at the seams. It is also, in its own subtle way, a love letter to writing and writers. With the pacing of a thriller and the careful consideration of a definitive biography, this is a sure and surprising novel that will haunt its readers for quite some time.

Biography of X is a dazzling literary chimera, at once an epic and chilling alternate history of the United States and an intimate portrait of a woman coming apart at the seams.
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Alejandro Varela’s short story collection, The People Who Report More Stress, explores many of the same themes as his debut novel, the National Book Award finalist The Town of Babylon (2022). With biting humor, a sharp eye for the weird details that define places and relationships, a delightful sense of play and a lot of heart, he examines the intersecting lives of a group of mostly queer and Latinx New York City residents. And though many of these characters are preoccupied with similar problems and anxieties—systemic racism, gentrification, alienation and loneliness, the challenges of long-term partnership, 21st-century parenting, economic injustice and more—they are all wonderfully specific and react to life’s ups and downs in their own ways. The result is a collection that feels cohesive, thematically complex and continually surprising all at once.

One of Varela’s many strengths is the way he uses humor to cut through all the static and get to the heart of a character or situation. He seems to have an endless supply of this humor, which can be dry and witty, bleak and a little sad, or biting and satirical. In one story, a United Nations employee describes the office politics and hookup culture of the various ambassadors, politicians and aides he works with. It’s a little ridiculous and seems downright absurd at times, but it never tips over the edge into total camp. In another story, a nanny for a wealthy Swedish family ponders the (again, often absurd) happenings within their co-op building. Varela plays with this edge, blurring the line between the everyday and the extraordinary, heightening the contrasts and contradictions that exist in our stratified world in a way that makes everything he writes feel charged.

Many of the stories are interconnected, and several feature an interracial gay couple, Gus and Eduardo, as they navigate their changing relationship over the years. The stories that center on parenting, family dynamics and intimate domestic moments are especially poignant, as are the hilarious but never flippant stories about internet dating. 

The People Who Report More Stress blends humor and social commentary with the thing that drives the best fiction: an honest and vulnerable exploration of messy human relationships. Fans of Varela’s first novel, as well as newcomers to his work, will find a lot to love in this collection.

One of Alejandro Varela’s many strengths is the way he uses humor to cut through all the static and get right to the heart of a character or situation.
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Sarah Cypher’s debut novel is as much about storytelling as it is about the characters who inhabit it. A swirling multigenerational family epic, it’s about the power that stories hold over families and whole nations, and the mysterious ways that certain indelible narratives can supplant real memories. Through an unusual structure that bucks narrative convention, Cypher explores the blurry lines between storytelling and history, memory and identity, exile and home.

Born with blue skin into a diasporic Palestinian family, Betty Rummani grows up awash in stories. During the first years of her life, she is passed between family members: her scientist mother, who often buries herself in work; her white father, desperate to remake the three of them into a functioning family unit; and her great aunt Nuha, the true keeper of the family’s stories. 

Betty recounts this turbulent childhood many years later as an adult faced with a difficult decision: to stay in the city she knows, or to follow the woman she loves to a new country. Searching for clarity, she hungrily turns to the notebooks left behind by Nuha when she died, and begins to piece together the surprising story of her aunt’s life.

Though Betty narrates the novel in the first person, she often feels like a peripheral character. She slips into Nuha’s voice and life as if she were Nuha herself. The book is full of vivid scenes from before Betty’s birth and memories of Nuha’s life in Palestine. This unusual structure can feel a bit clunky at times, as Betty recounts not only events she never witnessed but also the associated complex emotional realities. But readers who can relax into this kind of magical storytelling will find it both whimsical and powerful.

Cypher’s prose has a softness to it and a melodic cadence. It often feels as if Betty is speaking directly to the reader, though when she breaks the fourth wall, she does so slyly, so quietly you’ll miss it if you blink. The story feels like it’s being untangled as it’s told, and this—along with subtle glimpses of almost-magic—provides the sense of mystery that permeates the book.

The Skin and Its Girl is an intriguing debut, a story within a story within a story, and a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans.

Sarah Cypher’s first novel is a story within a story within a story, a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans.
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Jennifer Neal’s debut novel is a haunting coming-of-age story, a melodic love letter to the language of music and a fierce, dark, rage-filled upbraiding of patriarchal violence. 

Gabrielle has the ability to change the color of her skin, a quality inherited from her mother, Tallulah. As a child, Gabrielle learns how to shift from her natural brown into vivid reds and blues and golds, as well as how to hide her skin tones from the world when needed. Chillingly, Gabrielle and Tallulah most often make their skin white to appease the family patriarch, a violent, abusive man who demands everything in the house, including his wife and daughter, be whitewashed.

When Gabrielle’s controlling father insists that she take a year off after high school to improve her piano playing and bulk up her resume for college applications, she finds an unexpected source of freedom and solace in her piano teacher, a queer woman named Dominique. Dominique and her mother, Niyala, fill their colorful home with love, music and food—so unlike the cold and fearful house where Gabrielle grew up. As Gabrielle spends more time with them, she slowly begins to face—and heal—her deep old wounds.

Notes on Her Color unfolds almost glacially at first, in a series of meandering scenes—some banal and domestic, others startling in their harsh depictions of violence. A series of events toward the end of the novel heightens the book’s emotional impact, and though the pacing may feel a bit dizzying to some readers, it also captures the often tumultuous whims of adolescence.

Neal’s prose is assured and evocative, and the magic of shifting skin tones enables a fascinating commentary on race, power, invisibility and desire. But where this novel truly shines is in its nuanced exploration of relationships between women. There’s a softness in the way Neal writes about Gabrielle and Dominique, and a hard-edged tenderness to how Dominique and Niyala bicker and tease. Gabrielle and Tallulah’s thorny, muddled relationship is described with prickly honesty: They are haunted by many of the same demons, and yet they struggle to see each other clearly. With small but devastating details, Neal paints a vivid picture of their close bond and, just as gracefully, depicts the ways the world frays it nearly to breaking. 

Notes on Her Color is about familial violence and the complex legacies of generational trauma. It’s also about queer joy and the hard, slow work of liberation. Musicians and artists will likely find it especially compelling—the women in this novel use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should look out for this debut.

Musicians and artists will likely find Jennifer Neal’s novel especially compelling—the female characters use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should read this debut.
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Claudia Cravens’ debut novel is a funny, sharp, subversive marvel: a queer Western that feels both fresh and timeless. With gunfights, gambling, mysterious strangers riding into town, criminal gangs and highway robbery, it has all the trappings of a classic Western. The plot takes off about two-thirds of the way through, and it delivers plenty of heart-pumping action and adventure. There’s more than one scene during which you might find yourself holding your breath. But what makes all of this action so compelling is the quiet buildup. 

Alone and broke after her father dies from a snakebite, 16-year-old Bridget arrives in Dodge City, Kansas, exhausted, hungry and desperate for work. She finds it at the Buffalo Queen Saloon, a brothel run by two fierce but protective women. The Queen provides a kind of safety that Bridget has never known—steady money and a roof over her head—but it also makes her vulnerable to more than one kind of danger. When she falls in love with Spartan Lee, a legendary female gunfighter, Bridget realizes just how big the world truly is—and how much it will change her, if she lets it.

Though grounded in rich historical detail, Lucky Red reads at times like a modern coming-of-age story. Bridget’s new life as a “sporting woman” provides her with a fast education—in friendship and first love, in loss and betrayal, in what it means to stand up for herself and those she cares about. Cravens relates all of these internal revelations and outward discoveries in Bridget’s brash, no-nonsense, take-things-as-they-come narrative voice.

Through Bridget, Cravens captures the daily rhythms of a Kansas brothel in the 1870s with incredible care and nuance. There’s nothing sensational or dramatic about it. There’s only the honest depiction of the textures of ordinary life: the endless string of tricks that blur into each other; the petty squabbles between the women; the acts of loyalty and friendship that keep them alive; the bawdy jokes and moments of private amusement; the drudgery of chores; the ache of a hangover after a night of drinking and the pleasure of a hot cup of coffee.

Lucky Red is a complicated and moving portrait of a young queer woman determined to take up space in a world trying to render her invisible. Bridget often finds herself in situations without any good choices, and she sometimes pursues a course of action that causes harm, or makes messes—and isn’t that what it means to grow up? At its heart, this novel is a thrilling but contemplative meditation on the courage it takes to choose—yourself, your freedom, your pleasure, your home—and own the consequences.

There’s more than one scene of Claudia Craven’s queer Western during which you might find yourself holding your breath. But what makes all of this action so compelling is the quiet buildup.
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Nicola Dinan’s debut novel is the best kind of queer love story: not a dramatic tragedy but an expansive exploration of intimacy, desire and queer family-making. Dinan refuses to adhere to the expected beats of mainstream narratives about straight relationships, but she also also brashly and bravely rejects the standards of moral perfection that queer and transgender characters in fiction are too often required to live up to. Instead, she honors what is uncomfortable and hard about trans life right alongside what is sacred.

Tom and Ming meet in their early 20s at a drag show put on by their university and immediately hit it off. Tom is a white Brit whose good-natured cheerfulness masks his insecurity. Ming is an aspiring playwright who has come to England from Malaysia; her mother died when she was a teenager, and she’s still looking for a place or a group of people that feel like home. Tom and Ming fall in love easily, but their relationship is thrown into turmoil when Ming decides to transition. The narrative switches between their two perspectives as they navigate their changing relationships to each other and to themselves. 

Ming finds freedom, relief and joy in finally being herself, but being a nonwhite trans woman in the U.K. also brings new challenges. Tom struggles to accept that while his love for Ming hasn’t changed, his desire for her has. They are both grieving imagined versions of themselves and their futures. This kind of heartbreak, which is as much a part of queer and trans life as anything else, is not something that queer fiction often makes space for. 

Bellies is fraught with all the messes of growing up and into identity. Dinan’s prose is fresh and immediate and full of tension. There’s drunken revelry, heart-pounding fights, tender moments between lovers, strained long-distance phone calls with family and awkward support group meetings. Every page of this novel feels alive and thrumming; even the introspective sections have a momentum that pulls the reader along. Ming, Tom and their group of friends have quirks and flaws that make them immediately recognizable. They are selfish and petty, confused and clueless, loving and impatient. Sometimes they love one another generously, but sometimes they fail to love one another at all.

This is a vulnerable, moving, riotously funny and deeply honest book about trans life, first love, art-making, friendship, grief and the hard, slow process of building a home—in a new country, with another person and inside yourself. Bellies celebrates a hundred different kinds of transformation and, like the very best novels, has the power to transform its readers in unexpected ways.

Nicola Dinan’s debut novel is a vulnerable, moving, riotously funny and deeply honest story about trans life, first love, art-making, friendship, grief and the hard, slow process of building a home—in a new country, with another person and inside yourself.
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Kim Coleman Foote’s debut, Coleman Hill, is a sweeping family epic—an accomplished and assured intergenerational story that feels fresh but remains deeply steeped in Black American literary traditions and history. Foote describes the project as a biomythography, a word coined by writer and scholar Audre Lorde to describe her memoir, Zami. And like Lorde, Foote invokes literal ancestors alongside literary ones; the novel is a fictionalized account of her own family history. As this vivid novel navigates the rich texture of everyday Black life throughout the 20th century, Foote’s emotional investment in telling complicated stories truthfully and openly is apparent in every scene.

The novel begins in 1916 with an exodus. Like so many other Black people during the Great Migration, Celia Coleman and Lucy Grimes leave their homes in the South, intent on escaping racism and poverty. Both women settle in the small community of Vauxhall, New Jersey, but soon find that life in the North, though different, is not always better. Over the following decades, the Colemans and the Grimeses experience shattering losses, form surprising friendships, get into heated arguments, hold grudges and keep secrets from each other—all while trying to stay alive in a world that often treats them like they don’t matter.

Three generations come alive in poignant, beautifully rendered scenes. The narrative moves quickly through time, jumping from the 1920s to the ’40s to the ’70s. Each section begins with a photograph, which lends the book a powerful immediacy and makes it feel even more like a living history. The point of view also shifts quickly from person to person, as mothers and then sons, daughters, aunts and cousins add their memories to the tapestry of the two families’ lives. The result is a polyvocal symphony that highlights the complex and often contradictory experiences of characters who—even if unintentionally—perpetuate cycles of abuse. Foote zooms in and out with breathtaking skill, which allows her to illuminate her characters’ deeply personal choices as well as the long aftereffects of slavery and the insidious ways that trauma moves through generations.

Coleman Hill is not an easy read, rife as it is with violence, racism and abuse, but it never becomes maudlin. Foote’s prose is effortlessly poetic, yet it feels conversational and direct. Even the characters who only take center stage for a few pages are wonderfully drawn. This remarkable debut is a reminder that sometimes the best stories don’t have an answer at the end but, instead, unflinchingly tell the truths of human lives—even, and maybe especially, when the telling hurts.

Kim Coleman Foote’s remarkable debut is a reminder that sometimes the best stories don’t have an answer at the end but, instead, unflinchingly tell the truths of human lives—even, and maybe especially, when the telling hurts.
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C Pam Zhang’s sophomore novel has the same striking prose that made her debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (2020), so remarkable, but the similarities end there. Land of Milk and Honey is much stranger and perhaps even more beautiful. It’s a dystopian novel about food, pleasure, power, monstrosity and womanhood. It’s about the threads that keep us rooted to ourselves and each other, and about what happens when those threads fray and dissolve. The sheer range of Zhang’s imagination is striking.

A gray smog has spread across the world, causing catastrophic food shortages and global famine. A struggling chef, adrift, alone and stranded in Europe when the U.S. borders close, takes a job for a billionaire, preparing meals for his elite research community on a mountaintop in Italy. There, she cooks extravagant meals with ingredients that have disappeared from the rest of the world—aged cheeses, fresh meat, delicate greens, strawberries. Slowly, she cooks her way back to herself, finding pleasures she thought she’d lost forever. But she’s also forced to confront the reality of what her mysterious employer and his genius daughter are doing in this strange paradise—and the narrator’s own complicity in it.

Zhang’s sentences are visceral and heated. She writes about food and bodies with frenzied truthfulness. There is nothing pretty in this novel, but there is outrageous beauty. There is nothing nice in the way she describes the act of cooking, elaborate meals, butter or honey dissolving on the tongue, sex, bodily pleasure. Instead, Zhang’s prose is sensual, lavish, violent, incredibly close, without restraint. The narrator describes events from a distance of many years, but this only makes the heady details she recalls even more remarkable. For the narrator, and thus, for the readers, that old cliche “it feels like it happened yesterday” is undeniably true.

Land of Milk and Honey casts the kind of spell that readers can spend a lifetime hungering for. To read this book is to know yourself as a being made of skin and touch, a being made of other bodies. The impact is powerful and immediate. This is an astonishingly accomplished work, a deceptively simple dystopian vision that lays bare the heartbreaking complexities of seeking and giving pleasure, of wanting and loving in a world that is fundamentally shattered and forever shattering anew. It is the kind of uncomfortably honest art that disturbs and unsettles. It is also a generous and wildly celebratory ode to what keeps humans striving for something beyond mere survival: art, connection, taste, the sublime and fleeting pleasures of the body.

Read C Pam Zhang’s essay on Land of Milk and Honey.

C Pam Zhang’s sentences are visceral and heated. She writes about food and bodies with frenzied truthfulness. There is nothing pretty in Zhang’s second novel, but there is outrageous beauty.
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In her kaleidoscopic debut novel, Oindrila Mukherjee brings the fictional Indian city of Hrishipur to vivid life. Located in northern India, Hrishipur is a young city, home to migrants looking for work, elite professionals dazzled by the glittering nightlife and ultrawealthy business owners searching for the next big deal. With luxury malls, exclusive apartment complexes and crowded streets, it is a place of dizzying extremes.

The Dream Builders unfolds over the course of one hot, dry summer. Maneka Roy, a university professor who’s been living in the U.S. since college, returns home to visit her father after her mother’s sudden death. Her parents moved to Hrishipur from their native Kolkata, investing in one of many new construction projects that never materialized. Now her retired father is struggling to make ends meet, and Maneka is confronted with a city that’s as foreign to her as the American Midwest once was.

But Maneka and her father are just two of the 10 characters whose lives and stories intersect in The Dream Builders. There’s also Ramona, Maneka’s wealthy childhood friend, who has just bought a flat in the biggest new construction in Hrishipur: Trump Towers. There’s Jessica, a single mother with an adopted daughter, and Gopal, an electrician fueled by gritty determination. In other chapters, a husband longs to reconnect with his wife, a spa worker worries about her family’s financial situation, and a photographer dreams of his big break. Mukherjee moves easily from one point of view to the next, highlighting the cultural, class and gender diversity of the city.

All of these characters are hiding from themselves, each other, their pasts and futures. They may be neighbors, friends, lovers, employers and employees, but their dreams, desires and wounds are not immediately apparent to one another. They only ever see other people in bits and pieces, which often leads to misguided assumptions about the relative ease or hardship of another person’s life. This dissonance gives the novel its richness and propulsive motion. Although Mukherjee lingers in each perspective for only a chapter, her characters are so specific, so immediately human, that they remain resolutely present long after the narrative has moved on.

The Dream Builders is an elegant, intimate story about people adrift in a chaotic city, an unpredictable economy and a rapidly changing world. They long for home, belonging, stability and comfort, struggling to root themselves even as the ground shifts beneath them. In the spaces between their stories, Mukherjee invites readers to unknot the deeper echoes and connections that make this beautifully structured novel such a strong debut.

The Dream Builders is an elegant, intimate story about people adrift in a chaotic city, an unpredictable economy and a rapidly changing world.

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