The Millions

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2021 Book Preview

Folks, we made it to 2021—and, frankly, it looks a lot like last year. We’re still dealing with the pandemic, on-going civil unrest, and general malaise, but thankfully there are books. So many books. In fact, at 152 titles, this is the longest, most indulgent Millions preview ever. We could say we’re sorry but we all need some joy right now. Our list includes debut novels from Robert Jones, Jr., Gabriela Garcia, and Patricia Lockwood. New novels from literary powerhouses like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Richard Flanagan. New books by two Millions staffers: Ed Simon and Nick Ripatrazone. And short stories, memoirs, and essay collections too. No matter what you’re in the mood for, we think you’ll find a book or two to usher in the new year. As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Let us know in the comments what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!

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January

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu: Owusu’s childhood was marked by a series of departures, as her father, a United Nations official, moved the family from Europe to Africa and back. Her debut memoir is both a personal account of family upheaval and loss—her mother was an inconstant, flickering presence; her father died when Owusu was thirteen—and a meditation on race, identity, and the promise and pitfalls of growing up in multiple cultures; an experience, she writes, that “deepened my ability to hold multiple truths at once, to practice and nurture empathy. But it has also meant that I have no resting place. I have perpetually been a them rather than an us.” (Emily M.)

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: In his new collection, modern America’s foremost short story writer shares a master class on the Russian short story with the reader. This delightful book of criticism and craft pairs short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, with seven essays on how short fiction works and why it remains a vital art form for asking the big questions about life. As Saunders puts it in his introduction, “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” (Adam Price)

The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol: The nineteenth-century Filipino writer José Rizal denounced the cruelties of Spanish colonialism, and for that the colonial government put him to death in 1896. Now Filipina-American novelist Gina Apostol explores the father of Filipino literature and the movement for independence which he embodied in her darkly comic new novel. Apostol’s novel is written in the form of a memoir by the titular fictional character, a fellow revolutionary and devoted reader of Rizal. With shades of Roberto Bolaño and Vladimir Nabokov, she writes that her novel was “planned as a puzzle: traps for the reader, dead end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of the tongue.” (Ed S.)

The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.: Isaiah and Samuel, two enslaved men on a plantation, find solace as each other’s’ beloveds as they resist the brutality which they endure, until their uncomplicated love is challenged by an older enslaved man who arrives and begins to preach the master’s Christianity. Jones excavates the tangled histories of race and gender which mark a profoundly resonant narrative, where the oppressors “stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.” (Ed S.)

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: Audiences and readers have long thrilled to the lilt of a brogue, the so-called gift of the gab, and an often constructed illusion of Irishness. For the real thing, readers can turn to the eleven short stories that make up Irish writer Kevin Barry’s new collection. Eschewing both unearned romance and maudlin sentimentality, Barry roots his collection in the barren soil of western Ireland, where the “winter bleeds us out here,” where people are defined by “the clay of the place.” (Ed S.)

Outlawed by Anna North: A feminist western set in an alternative nineteenth-century America, Outlawed has been billed as True Grit meets The Crucible. Sign me up! The novel’s heroine is 17-year-old Ada, newly married and an apprentice to her midwife mother. After a year passes without a pregnancy, she gets involved with the Hole in the Wall Gang, and Kid, its charismatic leader. North, who is also a senior reporter at Vox, has received praise from Esmé Weijun Wang, who calls Outlawed a “grand, unforgettable tale,” and from Alexis Coe, who writes, “Fans of Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy finally get the Western they deserve.” (Edan)

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: The endorsements for Peter Ho Davies’ latest novel—his fifth work of fiction, and his follow-up to The Fortunes—are pretty dazzling. Sigrid Nunez calls it “achingly honest, searingly comic,” and Elizabeth McCracken writes: “Peter Ho Davies has written a brilliant book about modern marriage and parenthood.” From what I can gather, the novel is about a couple’s decision to terminate a pregnancy and their experience with parenthood after that decision. In its starred review, Kirkus writes that this short, spare novel is “perfectly observed and tremendously moving. This will strike a resonant chord with parents everywhere.” (Edan)

Hades, Argentina by Daniel Lodel: In 1978, Daniel Loedel’s half-sister was disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina. His first novel, Hades, Argentina, was inspired by this unspeakable event. In the novel, a young student is drawn into Argentina’s deadly politics; years later, having established himself in New York City, he’s pulled back to Buenos Aires and forced to confront literal and figurative ghosts of his past. Publishers Weekly is calling it “a revelatory new chapter to South American Cold War literature.” (Emily M.)

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: “I love trans women,” Torrey Peters once told an interviewer, “but they drive me fucking crazy. Trans women are fucked up and flawed, and I’m very interested in the ways in which trans women are fucked up and flawed.” In Torrey’s debut novel, a trio of New Yorkers—Reese, a trans woman; Ames, a man who used to live as a woman but decided to return to living as a man, and in so doing broke Reese’s heart; Katrina, Ames’s lover and boss—grapple with the decision of how and whether to raise a baby together. (Emily M.)

The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard: Beginning in 1914, Hubbard’s latest (following The Talented Ribkins) tells the story of August Sitwell, a Black groundskeeper who works for a wealthy white Southern family. After taking an interest in three apprentices of the house cook, Miss Mamie Price, Sitwell learns that the family’s patriarch, Mr. Barclay, intends to use his likeness to sell Miss Price’s coveted meat sauce. As time goes on and Sitwell sees none of the profits from Barclay’s sales, he grows resentful of his employer, leading to a shocking retaliation. (Thom)

In the Land of the Cyclops by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Martin Aitken): Knausgaard has set aside making toast and hunting for a lost set of keys for the moment to present us with startling proof that art and the everyday are of the same lineage. Essays on “art, literature, culture, and philosophy” including probing takes on Ingmar Bergman and the Northern Lights, and color reproductions of some worthy contemporary art. (Il’ja)

Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez: Scholar and essayist (read this piece, or this one) Gonsalez now publishes a work of memoir and cultural analysis that explores the lives of the many “Pedros” of America (taken from the character of the same name from the movie Napoleon Dynamite) as well as his own life as the child of immigrants, asking “what of the little queer and fat and feminine and neurodivergent child of color”? ” In a starred review, Kirkus calls this “a searching memoir . . . A subtle, expertly written repudiation of the American dream in favor of something more inclusive and more realistic.” (Lydia)

by : In Eaton’s Dark-Academia-meets-serious-questions-of-selfhood debut, St John the Divine, an elite English boarding school for girls, has been closed for fifteen years following a hushed-up scandal. Josephine, a newly married writer with a

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