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Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of the National Book Award finalist The Undocumented Americans, has a lot in common with the titular protagonist of her debut novel, Catalina. Like Villavicencio did, Catalina attends Harvard as an undocumented student, and her broad ambitions could easily be imagined as the precursor to Villavicencio’s success. With the recent prevalence of autofiction by authors like Teju Cole, Gabriela Wiener, Karl Ove Knausgaard and many others, readers might wonder, how much of Catalina is Villavicencio?

This uncertainty, it turns out, is deliberate: “I always want the reader to not necessarily be sure what my intentions are as a writer,” Villavicencio says. She found a model in J.D. Salinger’s short stories about the Glass family. “Salinger definitely does this. . . . You start to think Salinger might be one of the brothers, he might be Seymour [Glass]. . . . And I liked the game of not knowing what Salinger was trying to do . . . but I always knew that I was wrapped around his finger.”

Read our starred review of Catalina.

Like those Salinger stories, Catalina is wholly fiction, and Villavicencio sees the book as being in the same tradition as other novels with young protagonists like Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Catalina, like a lot of college students, dreads the approach of graduation and can’t figure out what to do with the rest of her life. By capturing the tumult of young adulthood, Villavicencio hopes to provoke readers to make something out of their mess. Her goal in writing is “empowering those who need to be empowered, embarrassing those who need to be embarrassed.” In the ’60s when The Velvet Underground was playing live in New York City, it was said that anyone who saw them was inspired to start their own band. Villavicencio wants her writing to have that same effect, for readers to “think they have to go make something. . . . [To think] I feel so alive, I have to go do something now.”

Musicians who make their songs feel personal were a big influence on Catalina, especially Lorde’s album Melodrama, where, Villavicencio feels, “spilling guts out with precision and dedication” was a fierce act of artistry. Villavicencio wanted this book to “sound and feel like a breakup album or pop album,” and that inspiration comes across in Catalina’s potent mix of melancholy and moxie. Villavicencio likes to think of her work in relation to Taylor Swift as well, whose fans pore over her lyric sheets looking for clues to her personal life.

“What your family, Telemundo and García Márquez teach us are all different. These are faulty categories. . . . The American racial binary can’t imagine us.”

There’s an allure to this sense of intimate disclosure. Villavicencio wanted reading Catalina to be like eating popcorn or potato chips, to give readers that feeling of “you can’t just eat one,” she says. “You can discover something new in every sentence, but it can also just be really fun.” When Villavicencio was sharing the book with family and friends, the reaction of one of her partner’s family members, an older white woman without the same educational background as Catalina, was encouragingly positive. She told Villavicencio that she “really related to Catalina” and felt “included with the smart kids . . . in a way that she felt she’d been excluded before.” This kind of boundary breaking, where what might have been alienating is instead enjoyable, is the foundation of Catalina, as the titular character navigates a system designed for conformity yet manages to stay entirely her complicated self. “There’s something that feels very, very freeing about entering cultural institutions feeling like it’s all there for you to use,” Villavicencio says. “I don’t have to take on the values to be able to use it.”

There’s another kind of empowering boundary breaking at work here as well, through Catalina’s position as a Latinx novel. When Catalina’s parents passed away in a car crash, she was sent to live with her grandparents, who had immigrated to the U.S. before she was born. Raised by them in New York City, and unable to leave the country because of her lack of documentation, Catalina is thoroughly a New Yorker. Still, she experiences the city and the rest of the world around her through a different language, one indecipherable by Anglos.

This transcendent language is symbolized in the novel by the khipu, an Incan recording device made from knotted strings—a “tactile” form of writing, as Villavicencio describes it—which Catalina encounters at the campus museum where she works. Western scholars have never been able to decipher the language of the khipu, so it remains a mystery what exactly they were used to record. This evokes the divide between minority and majority communities, who are often illegible to one another both linguistically and culturally. But Villavicencio puts the symbol to a further purpose: On another level, the khipu illustrates the distance between oneself and “the parts of our ancestry we can’t tap into.”

“Who do you hold the door open for going into the store? The theoretical is comfortable. Lived experience is harder.”

Villavicencio speaks with a wary wisdom about “the impossibility of being Latinx,” pointing out that “it can mean anything! . . . What your family, Telemundo and Garcia Márquez teach us are all different. These are faulty categories.” In today’s political landscape, where everything hinges on identity, “there is an image for marketing,” she says, but it doesn’t account for the complicated ways history has and continues to play out. “The American racial binary can’t imagine us. You have to use these terms defensively and it puts too much pressure on them. [Identity] has to encompass everything.” She says that you have to “go down to earth, face to face, [think about] who do you hold the door open for going into the store? The theoretical is comfortable. Lived experience is harder. Theory gets us out of doing the real work.” She is certainly doing the real work in Catalina, and readers will feel its impact.

In her clever debut novel, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes in a tradition of blurring the boundary between art and artist.
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College is supposed to be the best four years of your life. Throwing a Frisbee on the quad, spending late nights in the library, meeting people from all over the world—in the American imagination, college is a utopia. In Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s debut novel, Catalina, the titular character goes to Harvard and realizes that college can be a dystopia, too. As an undocumented person in the United States, Catalina Ituralde is forced to live her life quietly, mostly staying home with her two grandparents, who are also undocumented and at risk of deportation. But Catalina can’t avoid attention, or at least she doesn’t want to. An adventurous free spirit, she wants to live life to the fullest. She wants to fall in love and experience all of life’s pleasures and pains.

Every college student dreads graduation: After four years of security, what comes next? The “real” world? For Catalina, in her senior year, this dread is emphasized by an actual existential threat. Her status as a student helps to keep her from being deported, and if she can’t find a sustainable life path to follow after college, she risks being taken from the only world she’s ever known. When a pretty, privileged boy starts to take interest in her, it seems like a way is opening to get everything she wants. Nathaniel—whom Catalina never refers to as “Nathan” or “Nate,” underscoring the disparity of their social statuses—is the son of a famous director and an aspiring anthropologist. Both he and his father have a keen interest in the culture of Latin America, particularly Ecuador, where Catalina and her family have roots. Catalina flirts with Nathaniel, ensuring that he slowly, helplessly falls for her, and she starts to catch feelings too. But when the threat of deportation becomes a reality for her family, Catalina has to take advantage of her budding romance, asking Nathaniel’s father to help her gain public support by collaborating on a documentary. The project puts a strain on Catalina as she is forced to define herself, to speak for her dysfunctional family and to confront what kind of person Harvard has made her.

Written in brilliant, overflowing prose, Catalina is one of the best, most fun-to-read books you will find. You may see a bit of yourself in Catalina, or you may learn how to empathize with someone whose entire life is chaos.

Read our interview with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio about Catalina.

In Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s brilliant and fun debut novel, Catalina Ituralde, an adventurous free spirit and an undocumented student at Harvard, finds college to be a more dystopian experience than the typical American envisioning.
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The British poet Philip Larkin once famously opined that parents “fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” Protagonist Presley Fry in Cat Shook’s sophomore novel, Humor Me, could find many faults with her alcoholic mother and their toxic relationship. But after suddenly losing her, 20-something Presley is a bit of an emotional wreck. 

On the surface, it would seem that Presley’s well on her way to having it all: After moving from a small town in Georgia to New York City, she’s landed a gig as a production assistant on Gary Madden’s Late Night Show, with a supportive boss and an imminent promotion to talent booker. Like many city-dwelling professionals her age, Presley has a roommate, Izzy, who acts by turns as agony aunt and partner in crime. 

Much like the women of Sex and the City—she identifies as a Miranda—Presley breezes through a frothy sequence of confusing connections with near-boyfriends, drinks with gal pals at local nightspots and career-enhancing forays into the lower rungs of the entertainment industry, where she hopes to discover the unpolished gem upon whom she can hitch her own star. But the specter of her late mother haunts her at every step. 

And Presley is not the only one mourning her mother’s death. Susan Clark, her mother’s childhood best friend, is also working through her grief, with a side of distress over her wealthy and influential husband having been named in a #MeToo-era sexual misconduct scandal. After a couple of semi-awkward interactions (which seem to be the only type of interaction Presley has), Susan asks to be friends, and Presley somewhat reluctantly accepts. The relationship turns out to be fortuitous for both of them: Susan gets to spoil the daughter she never had, and Presley gains some valuable insight into her mother’s formative years. 

Though it certainly has rom-com-esque appeal, Humor Me goes beyond that, navigating the complexities of breaking old patterns, forging new connections and establishing one’s identity. It’s also a bit of a love letter to the City That Never Sleeps, even if its inhabitants do, occasionally to their detriment . . . and sometimes to their delight.

Like the women of Sex and the City, Humor Me’s protagonist Presley Fry breezes through connections with near-boyfriends, drinks with gal pals and career-enhancing forays in NYC, but the specter of her late mother haunts her at every step.
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In their haunting debut novel, Hombrecito, Santiago Jose Sanchez illuminates the hidden. The story begins in Ibagué, Colombia, a city that the protagonist, Santiago, returns to again and again, in dreams, memory and reality. Santiago is a young boy trying to make sense of a world he doesn’t understand: his absent father, his mother who sometimes “forgets she is a mother,” his feelings of alienation and otherness. When he moves with his mother and brother to Miami, those feelings continue to grow, even as he begins to embrace his queerness.

Sanchez traces Santiago’s search for belonging as he grows up and eventually leaves home for college in New York. The story follows the expected beats of a queer coming-of-age novel, but does so at a slant. Time moves unexpectedly. Scenes that take place over a few hours go on for pages; several years pass in the blank space between chapters. The prose is intensely visceral and deliberately opaque. It feels as if the narrator holds both himself and the reader at a distance before, distraught and needy, suddenly pulling them close. It’s a heartbreaking pleasure to get lost inside these pages.

Santiago’s complicated relationships with his brother and his mother shift with time, but never get easier. This is true of every relationship in Santiago’s life. There’s his first boyfriend, whom he meets in an internet chat room; his father back in Colombia, who drifts in and out of Santiago’s life; his roommate in New York; the men he sleeps with but doesn’t show himself to. His relationships to places are equally fraught: He longs for Colombia even as he distances himself from it. He leaves Miami but feels constantly pulled back by his mother.

Hombrecito is a novel about the events, sometimes unseen, often beyond our control, that shape our understanding of the world. It’s about growing up amid silences that reverberate into adulthood. It’s about self-destruction and self-denial; about fierce and unconditional love; about the cost of hiding and the turmoil of leaving a country. It’s about queerness and transience and one man’s long, slow journey to find a home inside both.

Santiago Jose Sanchez’s debut, Hombrecito, is a queer coming-of-age following a boy’s life from Colombia to Miami to New York. It’s a heartbreaking pleasure to get lost inside these pages.
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In Malas, the legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) ties together the stories of two women from different generations in a Texas border town. When the two meet in the ‘90s, their connection—including a shared love of Selena—threatens to surface buried town secrets.

Malas is your first novel. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for the book? When did you start writing it and where did your inspiration come from?

Malas began as my attempt to write a fairy tale for a fairy tales course during my M.F.A. The first thing that came to me was a young and very pregnant Pilar being confronted by an elderly woman claiming to be her husband Jose Alfredo’s ‘real’ wife. I was in Iowa at the time, buried in snow, which made me vividly recall the other extreme—the merciless heat of a south Texas summer, and the dreamlike quality of those still, hot afternoons, perfect for the apparition of this old woman in the street. But though I set out to write a villain, I ended up digging into a lot of vulnerability. I wrote about 40 pages, the opening to the novel, and didn’t turn in my fairy tale after all because the story would not end. Probably six months later, another big chunk came to me, in the form of Gen-X teen Lulu running around at night, full of hurt and rage at her father. Looking back, I think my inspiration came from the style of storytelling I’d heard all my life, a family or local history that might pass for folklore.

This book brims with colorful descriptions and vivid imagery. Your description of the dusty border town of La Cienega was particularly captivating, lending Malas a very precise sense of place and cultural richness. Did you draw at all upon your hometown of Del Rio, Texas, when developing the setting for this book?

Certainly there’s a lot of Del Rio in my novel, but I also drew on other small border towns I’m familiar with, and Laredo, which is my mother’s hometown. I considered setting the novel in an actual place, but ultimately there was more freedom in a fictitious one. I wanted to respect the individual histories of those actual towns, while retaining an authentic sense of the complexity of these communities.

Read our starred review of Malas.

One surprising thing about Malas is that although it begins rooted in the supernatural, it evolves into a story that is more grounded in reality. Can you discuss how you approached that balance and made the choice to shift it over the course of the novel? 

I would say that there are different realities for different people. Pilar has a perspective that might be more susceptible to a belief in the supernatural, and to a certain extent Lulu’s father does too. One of the things I wanted to explore was this idea of reality being very much in the eye of the beholder, and also, the idea that overcoming generational trauma might sometimes be related to not accepting a fate-driven narrative. Another preoccupation in Malas was the idea of stories, romanticized or folkloric, taking the place of factual events, because people are prone to mythologizing, even family histories.

An intergenerational saga, Malas moves between different decades, from the 1940s to the 1990s. What was it about this time period that interested you?

I am very interested in the period before the Civil Rights Movement in Texas, the history for Mexicans and Tejanos, the strictures they dealt with, but also the strength and creativity of this community. Malas is a music novel too, and the 1950s is when Tejano, like many genres of music, began to be influenced by rock ’n’ roll, which very much started the trajectory that led to the “Tejano Boom” of the 1990s, and Selena’s unique sound. The history of Tejano music is the history of this place.

Lulu is an avid music fan and aspiring punk singer, and the book is peppered throughout with musical references, particularly to Tejano and norteño bands. If you were to create a soundtrack for readers to listen to while reading Malas, what songs would you include?

For sure, “Hey Baby, Que Paso” by The Texas Tornados, “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” by Selena, and so much Pedro Infante.

Listen to Marcela Fuentes’ full Malas Spotify playlist!

One powerful scene in the book occurs when Lulu’s father educates her about the various types of gritos in Mexican music and teaches her how to perform one. Could you tell us more about the importance of the grito?

A grito is a vocal eruption of emotion—joy, grief, rage, love, pride—and sometimes the sound of rebellion. In music, it’s a cathartic yelling, amping up the emotion. And, as Lulu says in the novel, it’s a war cry. There’s a highly mythologized account of the “grito de Dolores” the cry of a priest to call his congregation to arms on the eve of Mexican Independence. The scene in the book is an important moment between Lulu and her father because music is one thing that remains a bond between them. Fraught as their relationship is, the heartbreaking thing is they actually love each other very deeply and they are quite similar personalities. I wanted this to be a moment of that love, a bit of closeness and vulnerability for both of them. He’s handing down a heritage to her, and it is a heritage of rebellion, though he doesn’t realize she wants to use it to rebel against him.

Throughout the book, we observe Lulu grappling with the transition between girlhood and womanhood, something that is also symbolized by her impending quinceañera. What did you find the most challenging about telling the story of a protagonist who is navigating this particularly complicated time in one’s life?

The most challenging part was going to that emotionally vulnerable place and trying to forget my adult consciousness, placing myself in the headspace of an angry, hurt kid. I kept having to remind myself that a 14-year-old can morph from child to adult, even moment to moment. Lulu’s a smart girl, overconfident in her abilities and toughness. Her feelings, much as she disavows them, are ardent and immediate and she doesn’t have the maturity or the parental guidance to process them.

“[F]ind your writer friends. You’ll keep each other writing no matter what life throws at you.”

With your debut novel under your belt, can you tell us what you’ll be working on next?

I’m finishing a linked story collection called My Heart Has More Rooms Than a Whorehouse. It follows the members of an extended Latinx family and explores the pressure points of familial obligations and the complexities of love. A young boy from the barrio settles a wager his dead father made with a rich man. A sister tries to make sense of her brother’s career as a bull rider. A group of kids search for the bogeyman haunting their grandmother’s house. A suburban wife aches to understand her volatile husband. The people in these stories navigate the web of family allegiances while trying to find breathing space for themselves.

You are a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and now teach Creative Writing at Texas Christian University. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and now give to your students?

The best piece of advice I got was that my writing community, writer friends, were the best thing I’d get from my M.F.A. I have a group of writer friends. I trust their eyes on my work, as they trust mine on theirs. I tell my students the same thing: find your writer friends. You’ll keep each other writing no matter what life throws at you.

Rebellious women face a family curse in Marcela Fuentes’ debut novel Malas, infused with folklore and Tejano culture.
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The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—dubbed the “Nazi Olympics” for providing an international platform to the genocidal regime—produced lasting memories, including the triumphs of Black American track and field star Jesse Owens and the “Boys in the Boat” rowing team that beat Germany in a dramatic upset. Less remembered is the wide speculation at the games that Helen Stephens, a U.S. runner who won two golds, might actually be a man.

She wasn’t. But the phony controversy was symptomatic of a panic in the Olympics establishment. Not long before the 1936 games, two top track and field athletes who had competed in international competitions as women said publicly that they were men (we would say now that they had come out as trans). A handful of Olympic leaders, including Nazi sympathizers, immediately drew the wrong conclusions and called for mandatory medical exams to determine sex prior to sports competitions.

In The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports, author Michael Waters sensitively tells this forgotten history and reveals its modern resonances. The book connects the struggles of those two athletes, Zdenek Koubek of Czechoslovakia and Mark Weston of Britain, with the relatively open attitude toward queerness in pre-Nazi Central Europe, the resistance within the early Olympics movement to women’s sports, and the failed effort to boycott the Berlin games.

The Other Olympians is full of surprises for contemporary readers. For example, anyone who mistakenly thinks Christine Jorgensen was the first person to have gender affirming surgery will learn very much otherwise. But Waters’ detailed description of the outspoken Koubek’s life before and during his transition is the heart of the book. He emerges as an overlooked pioneer.

Koubek, Weston and other trans and queer people profiled here never wanted to compete against women after their transitions. Yet an entire regimen of sex testing was built on the unfounded belief that men were somehow masquerading as women to participate in sports contests. Decisions made in the late 1930s created sports competition rules that still exist today, as debate over trans athletes rages in school board meetings, courtrooms and legislative sessions. Waters doggedly chronicles where the debate originated and calls for what he believes is overdue change.

The Other Olympians doggedly chronicles the lives of pioneering trans athletes and the historically fraught 1936 Olympic Games.
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Mike De Socio loves the Boy Scouts. In Morally Straight: How the Fight for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Changed the Boy Scouts—and America, De Socio, an Eagle Scout, details how Boy Scouts gave him, a nerdy misfit, the space to thrive. He is also queer, coming out while in college in 2015, the same year that the Scouts lifted its ban on gay leaders and two years after it had lifted the ban on gay Scouts. De Socio learned he was not alone: Boy Scouts had provided a safe haven for many other queer Scouts, a haven that was repeatedly taken away because of a policy that they had no idea even existed.

Taking its title from the Boy Scout Oath, Morally Straight weaves detailed journalism and De Socio’s deeply personal memories in its recounting of the effort to lift bans on LGBTQ+ Boy Scouts and their leaders. It starts with the story behind Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, the 2000 Supreme Court case that allowed the Scouts to discriminate against queer boys and men.

At the heart of De Socio’s book is the work of Scouts for Equality (SFE), an activist group formed in 2012 after the Scouts expelled lesbian den leader Jennifer Tyrrell. Headed by Zach Wahls and Jonathan Hillis, two straight Eagle Scouts, SFE evolved into a broad-based alliance of LGBTQ+ and straight Scouts, parents and supporters that eventually persuaded the Scouts to rescind their policies.

Under Wahls and Hillis’ leadership, the SFE became a juggernaut. In their early 20s, both men  were uniquely qualified to take on the BSA. The son of two lesbian mothers, Wahls was already a LGBTQ+ activist and the author of My Two Moms. Hillis was a prominent youth leader at the BSA’s national level. Ironically, both credit the Boy Scouts with developing the moral courage and leadership skills that made SFE possible.

Morally Straight is both clear-eyed and optimistic. BSA is now a broader tent, accepting gay, trans and even female Scouts. But, as De Socio’s own experiences show, it still grapples with how to give its members the space and tools to remain true to who they are.

Morally Straight weaves detailed journalism and author Mike De Socio’s deeply personal memories in its recounting of the effort to lift bans on LGBTQ+ Boy Scouts and their leaders.

As the Texas legislature attempts to ban books; dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion; and threaten LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, poet and author KB Brookins’ debut memoir, Pretty, arrives when we need it most. Brookins is a Black, queer and trans writer and cultural worker whose previous work includes two poetry collections, Freedom House and How to Identify Yourself With a Wound. Pretty details their experience navigating gender and Black masculinity while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, exploring how they have moved through a world of cisgender Black and non-Black people, from their biological parents to their adopted family, from classmates to lovers, and from their gender transition through adulthood.

Brookins spent their youth challenging binary spaces and expectations. From early childhood to the present, they have desired to be seen as pretty, and this book is the search to find out what that means for them: “Though not gendered, we often associate prettiness with womanhood, femininity, and objects we see as dainty,” they write. “I’ve never been interested in womanhood, but I’ve always wanted to be treated softly, like a fat pleasantry to the eyes.” Through often striking prose and imagery, Brookins questions the restrictions involved in those associations: “When I was femme, my prettiness was canceled out by Blackness. When I was butch, my prettiness was seen as invalidating my masculinity. Who taught us that masculinity can’t be pretty? Who taught us that Blackness was devoid of prettiness and delicacy?”

While Brookins searches for answers to these questions, they continuously remind us of how hostile the U.S. is to Black and trans people: “As the perception of me changes before my eyes, I realize that it is a specific sadness—embodying patriarchal masculinity in a country that wants your blood more than it wants you to breathe.” We need words and stories like this. By describing their movement through the world, Brookins simultaneously critiques the conditions that oppress Black and racialized people who seek radical self-acceptance, and refuses the state’s malicious attempts to criminalize gender and sexuality.

Pretty offers far more than just pretty words—Brookins tells their side of the story as an act of resistance against those who would silence them. This book is as much a story of self-discovery and survival as it is a love letter to their younger and current self.

As Texas threatens LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, KB Brookins’ memoir, Pretty, is an act of resistance against those who would silence trans writers.
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A romance is all about the final payoff: After pages of will-they-won’t-they teasing, readers anticipate the moment when everything falls ecstatically into place and our lovers end up together. Kate Young’s Experienced takes this model and twists it, leading readers on a wholehearted, fun exploration of dating and love in the 21st century. After her girlfriend Mei suggests they take a break so the newly-out Bette can casually date and get the full single experience, Bette goes on an awkward odyssey of first dates. Her journey is silly and relatable, and stays away from romance cliches—although that isn’t to say that the book doesn’t end happily.

Bette tries to be chill about the break. After a bit of confusion and hurt, she decides the best course of action is to actually get some dating experience. With her roommate Ash and Ash’s token straight-guy boyfriend Tim, Bette begins crafting her dating app profiles. They choose the best pictures—though Ash and Tim have to convince Bette that she really does look hot in some of them—and write cool, ironic responses to the prompts. Soon after, Bette starts dating a lineup of strange, sexy characters running the gamut of British lesbian baddies. The most memorable is Bette’s first date, Ruth, a PhD student and experienced casual dater who gives Bette the recipe for success and, in a twist of fate, helps her realize what she really wants from a relationship.

Chapter titles that count down to the date when Bette and Mei are supposed to get back together lend Experienced a sense of anxiety and longing that will be all too familiar to 21st century daters. Young’s charming British English pairs with a young millennial’s quirky, anxious interiority for a fun, surprisingly profound read. Romantics, if you’re lonely or even if you’re happily in love, this novel will be a treat. 

Kate Young’s charming British English paired with her young millennial protagonist’s quirky, anxious interiority makes Experienced a fun, surprisingly profound read.
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Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s debut novel is a quiet but profoundly moving coming-of-age story about a young gay man in mid-2000s Nigeria. It’s an at first straightforward novel that deepens as it progresses, building toward an ending befitting its protagonist—a young man continually moving through different versions of himself.

Blessings opens in 2006 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. When Obiefuna’s father catches him in a moment of tenderness with another boy, he immediately sends him away to boarding school. Life at school is strictly regulated and often violent. Older boys abuse and terrorize the younger boys without consequence. Obiefuna, fearing that his sexuality may be discovered at any moment, does what he thinks he has to in order to survive.

Though the novel continues to follow Obiefuna through his early years at university, his time at the boarding school takes up the most space and carries a hefty emotional weight. At times it may feel as if the story drags, but the beautiful and complicated third act reveals that Ibeh knew exactly where he was going all along. He captures the uneven importance of memory and experience, the way certain events can haunt a life without our knowledge. Obiefuna’s relationships to himself, his family, his lovers and his country change dramatically over time, a shift that Ibeh weaves almost invisibly into the prose.

Interspersed between chapters from Obiefuna’s point of view are ones told from his mother Uzoamaka’s perspective. These feel less immediate and vivid, but do add a poignant narrative layer, giving readers a glimpse into what goes unspoken between mother and son.

Blessings is an excellent work of queer fiction, full of characters who are neither good nor bad, but simply human beings in constant flux. Ibeh writes cruelty onto the page alongside tenderness, crafting scenes of domestic gay love with the same attention and detail he gives to scenes of emotional and physical violence. He offers us a precious glimpse of the world as it truly is for so many queer people: not tragic, not perfect, not all suffering or all joy—but worth living in and telling stories about.

Blessings offers a precious glimpse of the world as it truly is for so many queer people: not tragic, not perfect, not all suffering or all joy, but worth living in.
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The Safekeep, Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, is set in 1961 rural Holland. At 30, Isabel is living in the house where she was raised after the death of her father forced the family’s move from the city and into a furnished house their uncle Karel found for them. Isabel lives a circumscribed and watchful life, guarding her dead mother’s things, suspecting the maid of theft and fending off the attentions of a flirtatious neighbor. Of her brothers, Louis and Hendrik, she is closer to Hendrik, although she disapproves of his friend Sebastian, suspecting a deeper connection. Of Louis and the steady stream of girlfriends he introduces to her, she thinks even less. Until Eva.

The siblings meet Eva at a dinner out. With her clumsy manners and brassy dyed hair, she hardly impresses, and Isabel is shocked when Louis brings her to the house, telling Isabel that Eva must stay there while he goes away on business and showing Eva to their mother’s room. Even under Isabel’s watchful eye, things begin to disappear—a spoon, a bowl, a thimble. More alarming to Isabel is the overwhelming attraction she feels to Eva, an attraction that spills into an obsessive, intensely depicted sexual relationship.

Van der Wouden may be familiar as the author of the 2017 essay “On (Not) Reading Anne Frank,” which explored what it means to be a Dutch Jewish writer and her complicated relationship to Frank’s legacy. As Isabel and Eva’s connection unfolds, Van der Wouden’s true subject comes into view: how ordinary people were implicated in the ethnic cleansing that took place during World War II. Even in peacetime, Isabel and her peers are quick to notice people who appear different, with a fierce disgust that Isabel risks turning on herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality. A novel of redemption as much as revenge, The Safekeep has the pacing and twists of a thriller, while delving into the deeper issues laid bare by the Holocaust.

In Yael van der Wouden’s mesmerizing debut, The Safekeep, Isabel lives a circumscribed life in her dead mother’s house until her brother’s girlfriend comes to stay, alarming Isabel when an obsessive attraction develops between the two.

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Book jacket image for My Life with Sea Turtles by Christine Figgener

The illuminating My Life With Sea Turtles sheds light not only on the beauty and mystery of sea turtles, but also on the urgent need

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Book jacket image for Swift River by Essie Chambers

Swift River is a mesmerizing account of inherited trauma in a “sundown town,” propelled by the insightful and often-humorous narration of 16-year-old Diamond Newberry, the

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Book jacket image for The Great River by Boyce Upholt

Boyce Upholt wrangles the geological, political and cultural history of the wild Mississippi River in a compelling, lively narrative that will delight history fans.

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Book jacket image for Fire Exit by Morgan Talty

Morgan Talty follows up Night of the Living Rez with Fire Exit, a beautifully written novel that is sometimes funny, often heartbreaking and hopeful against

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These books starring bodies of water include Morgan Talty’s latest and everything you never needed to know about sea turtles.
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“This isn’t a mystery or a legend,” Diamond Newberry says. “It’s a story about leaving.” She’s the 16-year-old narrator of Essie Chambers’ debut novel, Swift River, a mesmerizing account of inherited trauma in what was once a sundown town, where residents threatened violence towards nonwhite people after sunset. In 1987 in the fictional New England mill town of Swift River, Diamond—the only nonwhite resident—lives with her unemployed white mom. They have been alone since the mysterious disappearance of Diamond’s Black father seven years ago. He was presumably the victim of racial violence, although the town rumor mill churns out sightings of him from time to time.

Diamond and her mother inhabit her deceased grandmother’s decaying house, which may be repossessed at any moment. Now that enough time has passed to have her missing husband declared legally dead, Diamond’s mother is counting on his life insurance money to turn their lives around. Meanwhile, Diamond yearns to escape and is secretly taking driving lessons. She and her mother hitchhike to get around, especially after Diamond, who weighs 298 pounds, allows her bike to be stolen because it had become too difficult to ride.

Diamond feels like a misfit in both society and her family, noting of her maternal lineage, “I am a break in their pure Irish stock; the first Black person, the end of the whites.” Chapters set in 1980 explain the events leading up to her father’s disappearance; at that time Diamond told her father, “You ruined my skin!” Her understanding of his family blossoms when the teenager receives a series of letters from Southern relatives. Black people once ran Swift River’s mills, until escalating racist hostility forced all but one to flee to Georgia during an event that became known as “The Leaving.”

While Diamond may sound like a down-and-out, tragic character, she’s anything but. This gutsy girl has a keen intellect, a beautiful singing voice and an irrepressible, hopeful outlook. Her often-humorous narration is the novel’s central, propelling force. She befriends a white girl, Shelly, and their page-turning misadventures offer sharp insights into friendship, class, racial bias and discrimination, and coming of age.

With finely crafted prose, never a saccharine moment and a plot that skillfully weaves together past and present, Chambers masterfully delivers the message of Swift River: “Our instincts, our deepest intuitions, are really our ancestral memory; our people speaking through us.”

Swift River is a mesmerizing account of inherited trauma in a “sundown town,” propelled by the insightful and often-humorous narration of 16-year-old Diamond Newberry, the town’s only Black resident.

The legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) has endured for centuries in Latinx culture, with roots tracing back to 1500s Mexico. A malevolent spirit who drowned her children after discovering her husband’s infidelity, La Llorona now roams the Earth cursing all who encounter her with lifelong misfortune and unhappiness. With her debut novel, Malas, Marcela Fuentes puts her own electrifying spin on this tale, updating it for the 21st century into a fiery family epic teeming with rage and revenge.

Set in the dusty border town of La Cienega, Texas, Malas follows two social outcasts separated by decades yet bound together in a surprising way. In 1951, Pilar Aguirre, mother to a young son and expecting her second child, is cursed by a crone who claims to be married to Pilar’s husband. The discord sown by this encounter ricochets through the subsequent weeks, months and years, rending relationships and ruining lives. Forty years later, another mysterious old woman appears in town, this time causing an uproar at the funeral of Lulu Muñoz’s grandmother. Headstrong and seeking to annoy her domineering father, 14-year-old Lulu strikes up a clandestine relationship with the stranger; as friendship blossoms and their connection deepens, the devastating way in which the two are linked gradually comes to light, dredging up old secrets that threaten to throw La Cienega into chaos once again.

Readers will devour Malas. Fuentes’ propulsive plotting; rich and precise depiction of Tejano culture; complex characters; and thoughtful exploration of female anger, grief and intergenerational trauma combine to form a fully immersive reading experience that—for all its specificity—will be compelling and meaningful to readers of all backgrounds. Brimming with brio, Fuentes’ deliciously defiant debut breathes new life into classic lore and heralds the arrival of a bold new literary powerhouse.

“[O]vercoming generational trauma might sometimes be related to not accepting a fate-driven narrative.” Read our Q&A with Marcela Fuentes about Malas.

With her debut novel, Malas, Marcela Fuentes puts her own electrifying spin on the legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), turning it into a fiery family epic teeming with rage, revenge and revolution.
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There is nothing predictable about Holly Wilson’s debut novel, Kittentits.

Relating the coming-of-age of a 10-year-old girl named Molly Sibly, Kittentits is set in 1992 on the outskirts of Chicago. Molly lives in a dilapidated Quaker co-op called House of Friends, with her once-blind puppeteer father who inexplicably regained his eyesight after a house fire; a community-gardening evangelist named Evelyn, who is also Molly’s home-school teacher; and the ghost of Sister Regina, a nun who perished in the same fire that gave Molly’s father his eyesight back. With a mother who died shortly after her birth and no friends beyond a pen pal named Demarcus who never writes back, Molly’s life is rather lacking for company.

Molly, however, seems blissfully unaware of the misfortune that surrounds her. What she’s focused on is the opening of the World’s Fair and a houseguest named Jeanie who is fresh out of prison and assigned to live in the House of Friends as her halfway house. Molly sets herself the following goal: befriend the thrillingly crass Jeanie, meet Demarcus in person and enjoy the opening day of the World’s Fair with her two new best friends. Then a second goal emerges: open a spiritual portal at the Fair and find the ghost of her mother. I’ll say it again—there’s nothing predictable about this novel. And for this precise reason, Kittentits is nearly impossible to put down.

Narrated by Molly in the first person, the story is a fast-paced, filthy-mouthed adventure, told with an exuberance that can only be expected from a 10-year-old. There is a surrealism to everything that happens that is best not to question (the World’s Fair taking place in 1992 being the least of our worries).

While Molly clearly steals the show as the protagonist, Wilson demonstrates exceptional artistry with the supporting characters, capturing the fundamental experiences of trust, friendship, love and loss. Their backstories, however improbable, will resonate with your personal yearnings.

A bit deranged, a lot unforgettable, Kittentits needs to be your next literary escape.

Kittentits, Holly Wilson’s debut novel, is a fast-paced, filthy-mouthed adventure—led by an exuberant 10-year-old narrator.
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Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s debut novel is a quiet but profoundly moving coming-of-age story about a young gay man in mid-2000s Nigeria. It’s an at first straightforward novel that deepens as it progresses, building toward an ending befitting its protagonist—a young man continually moving through different versions of himself.

Blessings opens in 2006 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. When Obiefuna’s father catches him in a moment of tenderness with another boy, he immediately sends him away to boarding school. Life at school is strictly regulated and often violent. Older boys abuse and terrorize the younger boys without consequence. Obiefuna, fearing that his sexuality may be discovered at any moment, does what he thinks he has to in order to survive.

Though the novel continues to follow Obiefuna through his early years at university, his time at the boarding school takes up the most space and carries a hefty emotional weight. At times it may feel as if the story drags, but the beautiful and complicated third act reveals that Ibeh knew exactly where he was going all along. He captures the uneven importance of memory and experience, the way certain events can haunt a life without our knowledge. Obiefuna’s relationships to himself, his family, his lovers and his country change dramatically over time, a shift that Ibeh weaves almost invisibly into the prose.

Interspersed between chapters from Obiefuna’s point of view are ones told from his mother Uzoamaka’s perspective. These feel less immediate and vivid, but do add a poignant narrative layer, giving readers a glimpse into what goes unspoken between mother and son.

Blessings is an excellent work of queer fiction, full of characters who are neither good nor bad, but simply human beings in constant flux. Ibeh writes cruelty onto the page alongside tenderness, crafting scenes of domestic gay love with the same attention and detail he gives to scenes of emotional and physical violence. He offers us a precious glimpse of the world as it truly is for so many queer people: not tragic, not perfect, not all suffering or all joy—but worth living in and telling stories about.

Blessings offers a precious glimpse of the world as it truly is for so many queer people: not tragic, not perfect, not all suffering or all joy, but worth living in.
Review by

In her first work to be translated into English, Spanish poet, playwright and author Alana S. Portero captures the complexities of trans girlhood and adolescence. Set in the working-class San Blas neighborhood of Madrid in the 1980s and 1990s, Bad Habit, is full of chaotic, messy, vibrant life. The unnamed protagonist, a trans girl who possesses an unshakable knowledge of herself but lacks a way to express it safely, has a singular first-person narrative voice. Her campy humor, biting observations and poetic musings will leave a lasting impression on readers.

Portero balances long, meaty passages of self-reflection with vivid scenes grounded in sensory detail. The resulting mix reads like a fictional memoir, a woman baring her soul with a wink. It even follows the expected beats of a coming-of-age memoir: the protagonist’s childhood and early realization that her gender is at odds with how the world sees her; her first bittersweet experience of love; her teenage exploits in Madrid’s downtown party scene; her painful attempts to blockade herself in the closet; her tentative forays into trans life.

Portero writes about the intersections of gender, sex, desire and longing—intersections that collide in the body—with incredible thoughtfulness and nuance. She also beautifully portrays trans sisterhood and found family. Many trans women play important roles in the protagonist’s life, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. These women are lonely, crass, loving, tough and each distinct. The care they give one another radiates off the page, even, and especially, when the narrative gets grim.

Sometimes Mara Faye Lethem’s translation feels a bit clunky; occasional oddly constructed sentences may take a moment to untangle. But this hardly matters, because the prose overall is so fresh. The protagonist’s ability to see herself and the people in her life both up close and from a distance is irresistible. Bad Habit is queer fiction at its painful, honest, celebratory best, rejoicing in the beauty of trans lives while simultaneously acknowledging the violence that the world too often thrusts upon them.

The campy humor, biting observations and poetic musings of Bad Habit’s heroine will leave a lasting impression on readers. This is queer fiction at its painful, honest, celebratory best.
Review by

Interesting Facts About Space (8.5 hours) is a character study of Enid, a 26-year-old woman whose life might be falling apart. We meet Enid when she begins to suspect she has a stalker. As she tries to differentiate between her paranoia and real signs of threat, Enid simultaneously juggles a constellation of self-esteem issues, convoluted family dynamics, a technological bug at work and a confusing dating life. Natalie Naudus lends an articulate, emphatic voice to the first-person narration, impressively capturing Enid’s varied shades of introspection, from reminiscence to anger to rueful comedy. At the center of this novel is the question of what it is to be normal. Is it an inner feeling or dependent on outside perception? Is it an ideal as distant as outer space, or is it actually achievable?

Read our review of the print edition of Interesting Facts About Space.

Natalie Naudus lends an articulate, emphatic voice to 26-year-old Enid, impressively capturing her varied shades of introspection, from reminiscence to anger to rueful comedy.

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