By Alyse Mgrdichian
The past couple years have been characterized by lots of things, most of which haven’t been very good. However, in the midst of the craziness, books are still being independently published. From thrillers and memoirs to poetry and sci-fi, here is a list of twenty indie books (published within the past few years) that you should consider adding to your TBR!
1. Milk Blood Heat by Daniel W. Moniz (2021)
A livewire debut from Dantiel W. Moniz, one of the most exciting discoveries in today’s literary landscape, Milk Blood Heat depicts the sultry lives of Floridians in intergenerational tales that contemplate human connection, race, womanhood, inheritance, and the elemental darkness in us all. Set among the cities and suburbs of Florida, each story delves into the ordinary worlds of young girls, women, and men who find themselves confronted by extraordinary moments of violent personal reckoning. These intimate portraits of people and relationships scour and soothe and blast a light on the nature of family, faith, forgiveness, consumption, and what we may, or may not, owe one another.
A thirteen-year-old meditates on her sadness and the difference between herself and her white best friend when an unexpected tragedy occurs; a woman recovering from a miscarriage finds herself unable to let go of her daughter—whose body parts she sees throughout her daily life; a teenager resists her family’s church and is accused of courting the devil; servers at a supper club cater to the insatiable cravings of their wealthy clientele; and two estranged siblings take a road-trip with their father’s ashes and are forced to face the troubling reality of how he continues to shape them.
Wise and subversive, spiritual and seductive, Milk Blood Heat forms an ouroboros of stories that bewitch with their truth, announcing the arrival of a bright new literary star.
2. Cardiff, By the Sea by Joyce Carol Oates (2020)
An academic in Pennsylvania discovers a terrifying trauma from her past after inheriting a house in Cardiff, Maine, from someone she has never heard of. A pubescent girl, overcome with loneliness, befriends a feral cat that becomes her protector from the increasingly aggressive males that surround her. A brilliant but shy college sophomore is distraught to discover that she’s pregnant, and the professor who takes her under his wing may not have innocent intentions. And a woman who marries into a family shattered by tragedy finds herself haunted by her predecessor’s voice, an inexplicably befouled well, and a compulsive attraction to a garage that took two lives.
In these psychologically daring, chillingly suspenseful pieces, the author writes about women facing threats past and present, once again cementing her reputation for ‘great intelligence and dead-on imaginative powers’ (Los Angeles Times Book Review).
3. American Quasar by David Campos and Maceo Montoya (2021)
“American Quasar is a visual-textual collaboration between poet David Campos and artist Maceo Montoya. What began as an exploration of the precipice of violence evolved into an excavation of self, a deep meditation on how country, family, and trauma affect the ability to love. The images and words build a poetic space where the body is understood in both physical and celestial terms, giving a spiritual dimension to the collection’s larger claim that the political is personal.
4. Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon (2021)
An unnamed woman checks into a guesthouse in a mysterious district known only as the Subdivision. The guesthouse’s owners, Clara and the Judge, are welcoming and helpful, if oddly preoccupied by the perpetually baffling jigsaw puzzle in the living room. With little more than a hand-drawn map and vague memories of her troubled past, the narrator ventures out in search of a job, an apartment, and a fresh start in life.
Accompanied by an unusually assertive digital assistant named Cylvia, the narrator is drawn deeper into an increasingly strange, surreal, and threatening world, which reveals itself to her through a series of darkly comic encounters reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels. A lovelorn truck driver . . . a mysterious child . . . a watchful crow. A cryptic birthday party. A baffling physics experiment in a defunct office tower where some calamity once happened. Through it all, the narrator is tempted and manipulated by the bakemono, a shape-shifting demon who poses a distinctly terrifying danger.
Harrowing, meticulous, and deranged, Subdivision is a brilliant maze of a novel from the writer Kelly Link has called ‘a master of the dark arts.’ With the narrative intensity and mordant humor familiar to readers of Broken River, J. Robert Lennon continues his exploration of the mysteries of perception and memory.
5. A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo (2020)
A Chinese woman moves from Beijing to London for a doctoral program—and to begin a new life—just as the Brexit campaign reaches a fever pitch. Isolated and lonely in a Britain increasingly hostile to foreigners, she meets a landscape architect and the two begin to build a life together.
A Lover’s Discourse is an exploration of romantic love told through fragments of conversations between the two lovers. Playing with language and the cultural differences that her narrator encounters as she settles into life in post-Brexit vote Britain, the lovers must navigate their differences and their romance, whether on their unmoored houseboat or in a cramped and stifling apartment in east London. Suffused with a wonderful sense of humor, this intimate and tender novel asks what it means to make a home and a family in a new land.
6. Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat by Khalisa Rae (2021)
What happens when a Midwestern girl migrates to a haunted Southern town, whose river is a graveyard, whose streets bear the names of Southern slave owners? How can she build a home where Confederate symbols strategically stand in the center of town? Can she sage the chilling truths of her ancestors? What will she do to cope with the traumatizing ghostliness of the present-day South?
Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat is a heart-wrenching reconciliation and confrontation of the living, breathing ghosts that awaken Black women each day. This debut poetry collection summons multiple hauntings—ghosts of matriarchs that came before, those that were slain, and those that continue to speak to us, but also those horrors women of color strive to put to rest. Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat examines the haunting feeling of facing past demons while grappling with sexism, racism, and bigotry. They are all present: ancestral ghosts, societal ghosts, and spiritual, internal hauntings. This book calls out for women to speak their truth in hopes of settling the ghosts or at least being at peace with them.
7. Animal Wife by Lara Ehrlich (2020)
In villages where women bore most of the weight of a constricted life, witches flew by night on broomsticks,’ said Italo Calvino of the way imagination bridges the gap between everyday existence and an idealized alternative. The fifteen stories of Animal Wife are unified by girls and women who cross this threshold seeking liberation from family responsibilities, from societal expectations, from their own minds. A girl born with feathers undertakes a quest for the mother who abandoned her. An indecisive woman drinks Foresight, only to become stymied by the futures branching before her. A proofreader cultivates a cage-fighting alter ego. A woman becomes psychologically trapped in her car. A girl acts on her desire for a childhood friend as a monster draws closer to the shore. A widow invites a bear to hibernate in her den.
8. A Camera Obscura by Carl Marcum (2021)
From the edge of a singularity and across desert roads at night, A Camera Obscura teleports its readers through deep space nebulae and the constructs of cityscapes to arrive at what it means to ‘see.’ Lovers embrace in sonnets, and meditations move through artworks and Hubble Telescope images as these poems employ ekphrastic visions to balance the profound displacements in the most mundane aspects of our lives with science, fact, faith, and song. In the ceremonial blades of Aztec sacrifice and the anonymity of undocumented lives, these poems accrete into a solar system of images seen true, seen askance, seen in error, seen entire. A Camera Obscura is the dark room of the imagination where sīgnum—the sign, the act—becomes the tangible testaments of living.
9. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (2019)
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant—the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number 12 children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s 13th and most unruly child.
A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the ‘Big Easy’ of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.
10. God of Nothingness: Poems by Mark Wunderlich (2021)
God of Nothingness is a book for those who have seen death up close or even quietly wished for it. In these poems, honed to a devastating edge, Mark Wunderlich asks: How is it we go on as those around us die? And why go on at all? This collection is a brilliant testament to the human ability to make something tough-minded and resilient out of despair and the inevitability of death drawing near. Some poems are moving elegies addressed to mentors, friends, and family recently gone; some contend with the unasked-for responsibilities of inheritance and the family name; others call forth the understanding of being the end of a genetic line; still others remember a rural Midwestern coming-of-age and, chillingly, an encounter with the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Present all the while are the prevailing comforts and wonders found in the natural world, work, and the longing for traditions that seem to be passing from our time. Exquisite in its craft and capaciousness, God of Nothingness is an unflinching journal of solitude and survival.
11. Space Invaders by Nora Fernandez (2019)
Space Invaders is the story of a group of childhood friends who, in adulthood, are preoccupied by uneasy memories and visions of their classmate, Estrella González Jepsen.
In their dreams, they catch glimpses of Estrella’s braids, hear echoes
of her voice, and read old letters that eventually, mysteriously, stopped arriving. They recall regimented school assemblies, nationalistic class performances, and a trip to the beach.
Soon it becomes clear that Estrella’s father was a ranking government officer implicated in the violent crimes of the Pinochet regime, and the question of what became of her after she left school haunts her erstwhile friends. Growing up, these friends―from her pen pal, Maldonado, to her crush, Riquelme―were old enough to sense the danger and tension that surrounded them, but were powerless in the face of it. They could control only the stories they told one another and the ‘ghostly green bullets’ they fired in the video game they played obsessively.
One of the leading Latin American writers of her generation, Nona Fernández effortlessly builds a choral and constantly shifting image of young life in the waning years of the dictatorship. In her short but intricately layered novel, she summons the collective memory of a generation, rescuing felt truth from the oblivion of official history.
12. She Would Be King by Wayetu Moore (2018)
Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond.
Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.
Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. ‘If she was not a woman,’ the wind says of Gbessa, ‘she would be king.’ In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.
13. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2020)
In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad, and a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman, Machado struggles to make sense of how what happened to her shaped the person she was becoming.
And it’s that struggle that gives the book its original structure: each chapter is driven by its own narrative trope―the haunted house, erotica, the bildungsroman―through which Machado holds the events up to the light and examines them from different angles. She looks back at her religious adolescence, unpacks the stereotype of lesbian relationships as safe and utopian, and widens the view with essayistic explorations of the history and reality of abuse in queer relationships.
Machado’s dire narrative is leavened with her characteristic wit, playfulness, and openness to inquiry. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek, and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction. The result is a wrenching, riveting book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.
14. The Wild Fox of Yemen by Three Almontaser
By turns aggressively reckless and fiercely protective, always guided by faith and ancestry, Threa Almontaser’s incendiary debut asks how mistranslation can be a form of self-knowledge and survival. A love letter to the country and people of Yemen, a portrait of young Muslim womanhood in New York after 9/11, and an extraordinarily composed examination of what it means to carry in the body the echoes of what came before, Almontaser’s polyvocal collection sneaks artifacts to and from worlds, repurposing language and adapting to the space between cultures. Half-crunk and hungry, speakers move with the force of what cannot be contained by the limits of the American imagination, and instead invest in troublemaking and trickery, navigate imperial violence across multiple accents and anthems, and apply gang signs in henna, utilizing any means necessary to form a semblance of home. In doing so, The Wild Fox of Yemen fearlessly rides the tension between carnality and tenderness in the unruly human spirit.
15. Everything I Am by Jenny Bond (2021)
When her partner of twenty-five years dies, Rebecca Collins discovers the secret life he had been living. Grieving, and with her sense of self in ruins, she embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about the man she loved, and to recreate the shattered image of herself. Rebecca is constantly challenged in her quest by visions of her dead partner. Is she going insane or is her current sorrow and anger beginning to mesh with the remnants of an earlier trauma, one she has long ago repressed? Seeking the help of a therapist, Rebecca is forced to travel the hidden recesses of her mind. Agonizing memories begin to resurface, and she eventually uncovers the well-spring of a far more profound grief … Set in Gerringong, London, Sydney, and Geneva, Everything I Am follows the journey of a woman pursued by a past she thought she had abandoned two decades earlier. A beautiful and gripping contemporary Australian story about family secrets and impossible choices. Perfect for fans of Breath and Bluebottle.
16. Waiting for Tomorrow by Nathacha Appanah (2018)
Anita is waiting for Adam to be released from prison. They met twenty years ago at a New Year’s Eve party in Paris, a city where they both felt out of place—he as a recent arrival from the provinces, and she as an immigrant from the island of Mauritius. They quickly fell in love, married, and moved to a village in southwestern France, to live on the shores of the Atlantic with their little girl, Laura.
In order to earn a living, Adam has left behind his love of painting to become an architect, and Anita has turned her desire to write into a job freelancing for a local newspaper. Over time, the monotony of daily life begins to erode the bonds of their marriage. The arrival of Adèle, an undocumented immigrant from Mauritius whom they hire to care for Laura, sparks artistic inspiration for both Adam and Anita, as well as a renewed energy in their relationship. But this harmony proves to be short-lived, brought down by their separate transgressions of Adèle’s privacy and a subsequently tragic turn of events.
With the careful observation, vivid description, and emotional resonance that are the hallmarks of her previous novel (The Last Brother), Nathacha Appanah investigates the life of the artist, the question of cultural differences within a marriage, and the creation and the destruction of a family.
17. Cloudmaker by Malcolm Brooks (2021)
The summer of 1937 will be a turning point for fourteen-year-old Houston ‘Huck’ Finn. When he and a friend find a dead body in a local creek, a rare Lindbergh flight watch on its wrist, it seems like a sign. Huck is building his own airplane, a fact he has concealed from his mother. That summer also marks the arrival of his cousin Annelise, sent to live with the family under mysterious circumstances. As it turns out, she has had flying lessons—another sign. As Huck’s airplane takes shape, so does his burgeoning understanding of the world, including the battle over worldliness vs. godliness that has split Annelise from her family, and, in a quieter way, divides Huck’s family too. And meanwhile, there’s the matter of the watch, which it turns out the dead man’s cohort of bank robbers would very much like back.
In Brooks’ trademark ‘lush, breathtaking prose’ (San Francisco Chronicle), and with a winking nod to Sam Clemens, who inspired its hero’s nickname, Cloudmaker is a boisterous, heartfelt novel that brings to life the idealism, inventiveness, traditionalism, and deep contradictions of the American spirit.
18. Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth (2017)
For more than ten years, Deb Olin Unferth has been publishing startlingly askew, wickedly comic, cutting-edge fiction in magazines such as Granta, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, NOON, and The Paris Review. Her stories are revered by some of the best American writers of our day, but until now there has been no stand-alone collection of her short fiction.
Wait Till You See Me Dance consists of several extraordinary longer stories as well as a selection of intoxicating very short stories. In the chilling ‘The First Full Thought of Her Life,’ a shooter gets in position while a young girl climbs a sand dune. In ‘Voltaire Night,’ students compete to tell a story about the worst thing that has ever happened to them. In ‘Stay Where You Are,’ two oblivious travelers in Central America are kidnapped by a gunman they assume to be an insurgent―but the gunman has his own problems.
An Unferth story lures you in with a voice that seems amiable and lighthearted, but it swerves in sudden and surprising ways that reveal, in terrifying clarity, the rage, despair, and profound mournfulness that have taken up residence at the heart of the American dream. These stories often take place in an exaggerated or heightened reality, a quality that is reminiscent of the work of Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders, but in Unferth’s unforgettable collection she carves out territory that is entirely her own.
19. Brute by Emily Skaja (2019)
Emily Skaja’s debut collection is a fiery, hypnotic book that confronts the dark questions and menacing silences around gender, sexuality, and violence. Brute arises, brave and furious, from the dissolution of a relationship, showing how such endings necessitate self-discovery and reinvention. The speaker of these poems is a sorceress, a bride, a warrior, a lover, both object and agent, ricocheting among ways of knowing and being known. Each incarnation squares itself up against ideas of feminine virtue and sin, strength and vulnerability, love and rage, as it closes in on a hard-won freedom.
Brute is absolutely sure of its capacity to insist not only on the truth of what it says but on the truth of its right to say it. ‘What am I supposed to say: I’m free?’ the first poem asks. The rest of the poems emphatically discover new ways to answer. This is a timely winner of the Walt Whitman Award, and an introduction to an unforgettable voice.
20. The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almanda
The Wind That Lays Waste begins in the great pause before a storm. Reverend Pearson is evangelizing across the Argentinian countryside with Leni, his teenage daughter, when their car breaks down. This act of God or fate leads them to the workshop and home of an aging mechanic called Gringo Brauer and a young boy named Tapioca.
As a long day passes, curiosity and intrigue transform into an unexpected intimacy between four people: one man who believes deeply in God, morality, and his own righteousness, and another whose life experiences have only entrenched his moral relativism and mild apathy; a quietly earnest and idealistic mechanic’s assistant, and a restless, skeptical preacher’s daughter. As tensions between these characters ebb and flow, beliefs are questioned and allegiances are tested, until finally the growing storm breaks over the plains. The Wind That Lays Waste is a philosophical, beautiful, and powerfully distinctive novel that marks the arrival in English of an author whose talent and poise are undeniable.
Article originally Published in the August / September 2021 Issue: Summer Reads.