#1: Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu

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“You should be here; he’s simply magnificent.” These are the final words a biologist hears before his Margaret Mead-like wife dies at the hands of Godzilla. The words haunt him as he studies the Kaiju (Japan’s giant monsters) on an island reserve, attempting to understand the beauty his wife saw.

“The Return to Monsterland” opens ‘Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone,’ a collection of twelve fabulist and genre-bending stories inspired by Japanese folklore, historical events, and pop culture. In “Rokurokubi”, a man who has the demonic ability to stretch his neck to incredible lengths tries to save a marriage built on secrets. The recently dead find their footing in “The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost”. In “Girl Zero”, a couple navigates the complexities of reviving their deceased daughter via the help of a shapeshifter. And, in the title story, a woman instigates a months-long dancing frenzy in a Tokyo where people don’t die but are simply reborn without their memories.

Every story in the collection turns to the fantastic, the mysticism of the past, and the absurdities of the future to illuminate the spaces we occupy when we, as individuals and as a society, are at our most vulnerable.

#2: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson

Heads of the Colored People

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

#3: A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

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In the nine expansive, searching stories of A Lucky Man, fathers and sons attempt to salvage relationships with friends and family members and confront mistakes made in the past. An imaginative young boy from the Bronx goes swimming with his group from day camp at a backyard pool in the suburbs, and faces the effects of power and privilege in ways he can barely grasp. A teen intent on proving himself a man through the all-night revel of J’Ouvert can’t help but look out for his impressionable younger brother. A pair of college boys on the prowl follow two girls home from a party and have to own the uncomfortable truth of their desires. And at a capoeira conference, two brothers grapple with how to tell the story of their family, caught in the dance of their painful, fractured history.

Jamel Brinkley’s stories, in a debut that announces the arrival of a significant new voice, reflect the tenderness and vulnerability of black men and boys whose hopes sometimes betray them, especially in a world shaped by race, gender, and class—where luck may be the greatest fiction of all.

#4: Supporting Cast by Kit De Waal

Supporting Cast

As she walks out of her marriage, a woman remembers a day by the sea when her husband rescued a boy from drowning.

A blind man on his wedding day celebrates the pursuit of love.
A woman finds companionship for the first time with the girls at work.
And a young man leaves prison with only one desire – to see his son again.

Kit de Waal’s characters light up the page in vivid stories of thwarted desire, love and loss. With power and precision, humanity and insight, Supporting Cast captures the extraordinary moments in our ordinary lives, and the darkness and the joy of the everyday.

#5: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


Navigating between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. In “A Temporary Matter,” published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession. Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant.

#6: Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan

Flowers of Mold

Praised for her meticulous descriptions and ability to transform the mundanity of everyday life into something strange and unexpected, Ha Seong-nan bursts into the English literary scene with this stunning collection that confirms Korea’s place at the forefront of contemporary women’s writing. From the title story told by a woman suffering from gaps in her memory, to one about a man seeking insight in bags of garbage, to a surreal story about a car salesman and the customer he tries to seduce, The Woman Next Door charms and provokes with an incomparable style.

#7: Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok

Last of Her Name

Mimi Lok’s Last of Her Name is an eye-opening story collection about the intimate, interconnected lives of diasporic women and the histories they are born into. Set in a wide range of time periods and locales, including ’80s UK suburbia, WWII Hong Kong and contemporary urban California, the book features an eclectic cast of outsiders: among them, an elderly housebreaker, wounded lovers and kung-fu fighting teenage girls. Last of Her Name offers a meditation on female desire and resilience, family and the nature of memory.

#8: If You See Me Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

If You See Me, Don't Say Hi

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi examines the collisions of old world and new world, small town and big city, traditional beliefs (like arranged marriage) and modern rituals (like Facebook stalking). The men and women in these stories are full of passion, regret, envy, anger, and yearning. They fall in love with the wrong people and betray one another and deal with the accumulation of years of subtle racism. They are utterly compelling. Ranging across the country, Patel’s stories — empathetic, provocative, twisting, and wryly funny — introduce a bold new literary voice, one that feels more timely than ever.

#9: Alligator & Other Stories by Dima Alzayat

Alligator and Other Stories

Alzayat’s stories are rich and relatable, chronicling a sense of displacement through everyday scenarios. There is the intern in pre-#MeToo Hollywood of “Only Those Who Struggle Succeed,” the New York City children on the lookout for a place to play on the heels of Etan Patz’s kidnapping in “Disappearance,” and the “dangerous” women of “Daughters of Manāt” who struggle to assert their independence.

The title story, “Alligator,” is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and intergenerational trauma, told in an epistolary format through social media posts, newspaper clippings, and testimonials, that starts with the true story of the lynching of a Syrian immigrant couple by law officers in small-town Florida. Placed in a wider context of U.S. racial violence, the extrajudicial deaths, and what happens to the couple’s children and their children’s children in the years after, challenges the demands of American assimilation and its limits.

Alligator and Other Stories is haunting, spellbinding, and unforgettable, while marking Dima Alzayat’s arrival as a tremendously gifted new talent.

#10: Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela

Elsewhere, Home

Since her award-winning debut novel, Minaret, Leila Aboulela has been praised by J.M. Coetzee, Ali Smith, Aminatta Forna, and Anthony Marra among others for her rich and nuanced depictions of Islamic spiritual and political life. Her latest collection, Elsewhere, Home, draws us ineluctably into the lives of immigrants at home and abroad as they forge new identities and reshape old ones.

Shuttling between the dusty, sun-baked streets of Khartoum and the university halls and cramped apartments of Aberdeen and London, Elsewhere, Home explores, with subtlety and restraint, the profound feelings of yearning, loss, and alienation that come with leaving one’s homeland in pursuit of a different life.

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How to describe the stories of Sofia Samatar’s Tender? They’re all beautifully written, for one. Samatar’s language is economical and powerful, powerful because it is economical. In every one of these stories there is a line that makes you stop because it is so moving, so devastating, so poignant, so true-to-life. The short story lives and dies by its writer’s ability to deliver substance within a bounded span of pages, and it is exactly for this reason that Samatar’s stories hit their mark so precisely. Her language is just as a short story should be: sleek, compact, and clearsighted.

“I once heard a beautiful story. I suppose that’s why I write: because once somebody told me something beautiful.”

As for what the stories themselves are about, there is so much ground covered in terms of both depth and breadth. The collection is split into two parts, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” which is just so apt (and beautifully put). Tenderness is a potent concept undergirding all these stories, and in every story it bears different resonances, from the hopeful to the melancholy, from the playful to the grieving. And as for scope, these narratives are as wide-ranging as their styles. “Walkdog” is a story delivered as a footnote-laden essay written by a high schooler, spelling mistakes and all; “Olimpia’s Ghost” is an epistolary story whose protagonist receives no response to her letters; “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story (-within-a-story?). The more I list these stories off the more I realize that really, every one of them is so distinctly its own entity, suffused with a particular tone or flavour or atmosphere.

What are these stories about, then? So much, they are about so much: diasporic identities, imperialism, language, storytelling, myths, grief, alienation, technology, dystopic futures–and all explored with such nuance and insight. There was not a single story that I disliked, but my favourites were “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” (a gorgeous story to start off the collection), “Walkdog” (it made me cry), “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” (wry and playful yet profound at the same time), “Honey Bear” (one word: haunting), and “How to Get Back to the Forest” (an ode to the sheer force and vitality that female friendships can have).

One last thing: what distinguishes this collection from many other that I’ve read is, I think, that Tender‘s short stories don’t just benefit from, but indeed ask for multiple readings. This is not to say that they’re confusing or convoluted, but rather that after having read them for the first time, you get a sense that there’s so much material to be mined beneath the surface of their words, if only you look again and look carefully.

If you like short stories, if you don’t like short stories: read Tender. It’s a luminous collection.

(Thanks so much to Small Beer Press for sending me a copy of Tender in exchange for an honest review!)

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where the wild

51168664An absolute delight of a short story collection.

The stories of Where the Wild Ladies Are are filled with all sorts of fantastical things: ghosts, frog guardians, and hauntings aplenty. And yet no matter how seemingly discordant these things may be, they come together beautifully in Matsuda’s hands.

Each of these stories comprises a small part of a bigger picture, and the more you read the collection, the more insight you gain into the threads connecting one to the other, the ways in which themes or characters or myths reverberate throughout their narratives.

And what narratives they are. Matsuda’s stories are playful yet tender, invested in moments of personal importance to their characters. The plots of these stories may be far-flung–what with all the ghosts and various other fantastical goings-on–but Matsuda always maintains her focus on a compassionate and sympathetic treatment of her characters. Oh, and the writing is just delightful: like a bubble, almost as if it conjures something out of nothing. It’s simple but affecting, clean and precise.

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a breath of fresh air. I cannot recommend this one highly enough, especially if you love Japanese fiction and/or short story collections.

(Thanks so much to Soft Skull Press for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!)


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