Leslie Hinson

Considering that it’s about a dying man, Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black is incredibly alive. The novel’s simple format—letters that offer decades of retrospection—makes for incredible storytelling, and readers will be invested from page one.

Jacob Swinton is dying of lung cancer. In his last few months, he decides to write to his estranged gay son, Isaac. Through these letters, Jacob not only atones for his past behavior but also chronicles the Swinton family history from the time of American slavery until the early 2000s. His recollections of growing up on his grandparents’ farm in rural Arkansas range from loving memories of baking a cake with his grandmother to devastating revelations of abuse at his grandfather’s hand.

Jacob’s heartbreak is palpable as he recounts his story, and his deathbed serves as a vantage point from which he can both see his wrongdoings and also forgive himself for them. To his credit, he confronts his mistakes head-on. He did the best he could, but that doesn’t change the fact that he rejected Isaac for being gay and destroyed his chances at having a relationship with him.

Jacob is terribly lonely, kept company only by the books that open his mind but also sharpen his understanding of how wrong he has been. By reading the words of Malcolm X and Alice Walker, he discovers new pride in his Black ancestors and confronts decades of toxic masculinity and generational trauma. He feels shame for how he has treated women while understanding that it was learned behavior, passed down by the men before him.

But these are letters, not a conversation with his son, so despite Jacob’s change of heart, it’s all too late. The damage has been done.

An accomplished author of six previous novels, Black has crafted a memorable, poignant story that explores themes of regret, legacy and family—and yet remains perfectly balanced through it all.

A dying man confronts his mistakes and makes a last-ditch attempt to reconnect with his son in this vividly told and poignant novel.

In the town of Tamil Nadu, India, Kalki isn’t the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, but few people know that. After all, his skin is blue, just like Vishnu, and his family has built an entire ashram around him. People come from all over to be healed, and Kalki often succeeds.

Growing up in the role of a god comes with unique responsibilities. Kalki isn’t supposed to play with the other kids in his village, and his cousin Lakshman is his only friend. When a very sick little girl comes to the ashram, Kalki heals her, but he also notices his father giving her a white tablet to swallow. Then Kalki is asked to conjure horses, and again he succeeds—but also notices unfamiliar tire indentations leading up to the ashram. The most troublesome piece of evidence against his divinity is that there are some people Kalki can’t heal.

The fabric around the ruse begins to disintegrate, but it takes a long time. Kalki lives an incredibly sheltered existence. Occasional travelers who visit the ashram provide his only link to the outside world, and these interactions are years apart. His father is controlling and leaves very little room for new ideas.

When Kalki is 22, he leaves Tamil Nadu for a world tour with his father. In New York, he reconnects with Lakshman and goes on a real-world adventure, during which he begins to understand the scope of what people will choose to believe. He plunges into the city’s underground rock music scene, which is as different as possible from life in the ashram. Kalki also learns his own backstory, an origin tale that is so fantastical and yet so plausible that it deserves a moment of appreciation.

As Kalki is forced to reckon with the lies that form the foundation of his life, SJ Sindu’s second novel, Blue-Skinned Gods, pursues questions of sexuality, social hierarchy, family secrets, toxic masculinity and religious abuse. Sindu doesn’t quite nail the emotional payoff at the novel’s close, but she still delivers an exciting journey that lovingly explores the nature of chosen families.

Kalki isn’t actually the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, but few people know that.

Kristen Arnett delivers a fantastic follow-up after her bestselling 2019 novel, Mostly Dead Things. With Teeth is a hilarious and astute dive into the not-so-fun parts of parenthood. Arnett shows her range with laugh-out-loud scenes and moments of honest sadness as she puts protagonist Sammie through the wringer. With Teeth begins with an attempted child abduction at a playground; just try to stop reading after such a harrowing scene.

Sammie and her wife, Monika, have a lovely life together in Orlando, Florida. They have a nice house, a comfortable income and a son, Samson. But like any family, there are cracks in the foundation, and Arnett steadily subjects those cracks to pressure until they rupture.

A significant cause of strain is that Sammie’s and Monika’s parenting styles are at odds. Even after their romantic relationship ends, the former wives continue to cohabitate for the sake of their son, but the reader may begin to wonder if this benefits him at all. Samson is far from an easy kid, and Sammie often feels like she gave birth to and is living with a stranger. He is difficult and rude past the point of typical child behavior, but as soon as the reader is fed up with him, Samson offers a moment of insight into Sammie’s parenting that partially redeems him.

Sammie’s resistance to change is frustrating, engaging and propulsive. She drinks too much, and she tends to unravel when she learns the truth about a situation. Brilliant asides from peripheral characters such as therapists, teachers and convenience store workers expose the gaps in her reality. Some particularly devastating insight comes from a woman named Debbie who works at Sammie’s childhood church. Sammie perceives Debbie’s actions as homophobic, but when an aside reveals Debbie’s point of view, the reader becomes aware of Sammie’s miscalculations. 

Though it is obvious that many of Sammie’s actions are the cause of her alienation, readers will still root for her from start to finish in this complex picture of queer parenthood.

Kristen Arnett shows her range with laugh-out-loud scenes and moments of honest sadness as she puts her protagonist through the wringer.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Hummingbird Salamander, security analyst Jane Smith receives an envelope containing a key and a short list of animals. The contents of the envelope seem to be random, but Jane investigates them anyway and ends up at a storage unit where she finds a taxidermied hummingbird. After prying out the eyes of the bird, she finds another clue, which leads to an unraveling, deadly mystery that unravels Jane as well.

Jane has an exceptionally unique voice. Even from her first-person point of view, it’s apparent that she is selfish, brazen and highly unusual. She gives strange nicknames to her belongings, such as “Shovel Pig” the purse and “Bog” the cellphone. She is closer friends with her purse than with her husband.

Though Jane has “made it”—she has a high-paying job, a family, a nice house—she seems to experience life as an outsider. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy for her to throw it all away, though the reader must take certain leaps to understand this motivation: The story falls short when it comes to establishing why Jane would go to such excruciating lengths to solve the mystery. The reader’s questions are ultimately answered, though only in a sense, and far too late.

VanderMeer is a well-established, highly acclaimed author who is known for weird, inventive fiction, including his Southern Reach Trilogy, the first novel of which (Annihilation) was adapted to film. Hummingbird Salamander is not a great introduction to his style, but his existing fans will likely be carried through by its intriguing, propulsive plot.

The intriguing opening of Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller leads to an unraveling, deadly mystery.

Areum’s parents were 16 when he was born. Now they are 32, and Areum is 16, but it is he who is confronting old age. He has a rare syndrome called progeria, which makes him age roughly eight times faster than the average child, so he is a teenager in the body of an 80-year-old. As a gift to his parents, he decides to write down the stories they’ve told him over the years. He hopes to finish before his 17th birthday, which will likely be his last.

Areum struggles with self-doubt as he writes, even scrapping an early iteration of the project before he gains the inspiration to write again. This inspiration comes from a pen pal, and Areum, stuck in the hospital for the rest of his life, develops a crush. He wants to experience life like a “normal” kid, even saying that he wants to make mistakes and be disappointed, because other kids get those opportunities. But Areum’s reality is that while he develops this relationship, he also deals with arthritis and begins going blind.

Author Ae-ran Kim considers age versus maturity in My Brilliant Life, which was originally published with the title My Palpitating Life in South Korea in 2011 and then adapted into a film in 2014. Areum’s parents are children when he is born, and they are in their early 30s when he dies. His existence in their lives caused them to grow up quickly, and even more so when he developed special needs. The presence of a neighborly father and son, both elderly, serves as a constant reminder that Areum will not have the chance to take care of his parents when they are old.

Translated into English by Chi-Young Kim, My Brilliant Life is told in poetic, succinct vignettes, ranging from the stories that Areum writes for his parents to narrations of his present. The text never teeters into gawking over Areum’s ailments, and he remains fixed as a curious, emotionally adept protagonist trying to navigate the awkwardness of being a teenager.

Areum’s reckoning with his fate makes for a wrenching story. This slim book has so much heart, packing quite an emotional investment into its 208 pages. As fleeting as Areum’s fictional life may be, he will not be a character easily forgotten.

Areum’s reckoning with his fate makes for a wrenching story. This slim book has so much heart, packing quite an emotional investment into its 208 pages.

Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.

The story centers on three people: Reese, a mid-30s transgender woman; her ex, Amy, now Ames, who detransitioned following their breakup three years ago; and Ames’ superior at work, Katrina, a cisgender woman. Ames’ clandestine hookups with Katrina have resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. Now, faced with the question of parenthood and what fatherhood would mean for his identity, Ames reaches out to Reese. If Reese could co-parent with them, maybe he could feel confident about his own role.

Navigating a pending shared parenthood isn’t simple, and Peters takes the reader on a vivid trip through the characters’ backstories to show how they have arrived here, adding intricate layers to every moment. She displays a masterful control over this story, offering a psychological deep dive that is still entertaining thanks to the potency of Reese, Ames and Katrina. The vivid supporting cast is equally as endearing, as not one side character seems to understand that they are not the lead.

Devastating, hilarious, touching, timely and studded with fun pop culture references and celebrity cameos, this is an acutely intelligent story about womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie within.

Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.

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