15 Small Press Books You Should Be Reading This Summer
Indie books that will take you on a journey across states and countries
Small presses have been publishing excellent work by writers who you may not know (yet). From compelling short stories to heart-wrenching novels, these books will take you on a journey across states and countries, into the past or to the future, as well as deep into the minds of richly-drawn characters.
Braddock Avenue Books: The Company of Strangers by Jen Michalski
Whether it is an adjunct having a doomed affair with a tenured professor after fixing her toilet, a woman who purchases a beautiful vintage piano only to deconstruct it as she grieves the loss of her partner, or a young woman who sleeps with her brother’s girlfriend and then forms a tight friendship with an older gay couple who passing through a hostel, the people in The Company of Strangers are all yearning. In trying to heal fractured families, form connection with romantic partners, and build community, these characters come alive. The collection includes both the small dramas of everyday life and defining moments—a sister gone missing as a child, a wedding missed on a cocaine bender that leads to an arrest, missed connections with would-be lovers because of the obligations of parenting. Despite varied perspectives in class and personas, there is a strong thread between the stories, as each delivers an emotional punch. A stunning accomplishment.
AK Press/Black Dawn: Maroons by Adrienne Maree Brown
The second book the three-part Grievers series continues to follow Dune, whose mother was patient zero in a viral outbreak engineered to target Black Americans, with Detroit as the epicenter. Even in the wake of a decimated community, Dune is persisting through the luck of immunity. They have a routine of foraging for food, documenting lost people, and building on a physical model of Detroit their father set up in the basement of the family home. Yet, when Dune hears an illicit radio transmission from Dawud, a national guardsman who has chosen to remain in the city long after his unit has left, they find his broadcasting location along with him as an ally, another living person in the city. As Dune finds connection with Dawud, and other survivors, the post-pandemic landscape takes on a quality that transcends subsistence living and moves into Black Detroiters reclaiming a landscape which white nationalists tried to destroy. Maroons veers into magical territory, but still stays grounded in a narrative with a sense of hope. Brown remains an innovative and important voice in fiction.
Red Hen Press: Secret Harvests by David Mas Masumoto
When David Mas Masumoto is contacted by a stranger regarding his maternal aunt Shizuko, he is at first slightly confused. From family, he has only heard whispers of Shizuko, who was institutionalized, and if the information is correct, she would now be ninety-three; it was assumed she was dead. Masumoto is a third-generation farmer in California’s central valley, and his family story is marked by generational poverty that is intertwined with the particular brand of racism against Asian Americans perpetuated by the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act and later Japanese internment camps. Shizuko, who contracted viral meningitis as a five-year old in 1924, had little access to health care and suffered permanent brain damage. There is a stark reminder in Secret Harvests of how precarious childhood was a century ago; for example even if her family had the means to access it, penicillin was not even invented until four years after Shizuko’s illness. With the patience of a farmer coaxing fruit from the vine, Masumoto unwinds his aunt’s story. A beautifully empathetic book.
Nebraska Press: Dog on Fire by Terese Svoboda
After the death of her brother and in the wake of a divorce, this novel’s unnamed protagonist moves back to the family farm. Her father has rigged up a series of make-shift meat smokers that perpetually puff into the air; her deeply alcoholic mother is often drying out at a facility in Chicago. She sees the ghost of her dead brother, a grave-digger by trade in a town with a history of grave-digging, alongside fences, next to a meteor crater, and in visions. Her own son, teenaged, looks so much like her brother that the brother’s lover, Aphra, follows the son around. Much of Dog on Fire exists in a liminal space—between the living and the dead, between the just lit on fire and the almost-ash. It’s a comedy of errors in many ways, like when the protagonist and her son retrieve canine bones from the high school trash to absolve a crime, and when the protagonist fakes a séance. Svoboda’s most recent novel finds the pulse between the every day and the absurd. A richly imaged novel from a writer at the top of her form.
Forest Avenue Press: No God Like the Mother by Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher
A woman gets an abortion just as her lover finally finds work, a mother drowns herself in alcohol and pills after her son is kidnapped, a young girl is abandoned by her mother who has made a dubious bargain with drug dealers. In these nine stories set across Nigeria, the United States, and one in France, women are faced with near constant threats against their very existence. There is danger all around them, from men they know and men they don’t, from bill collectors and hunger, and from a world that does not value them. The collection is threaded by leaving home as a choice or necessity, or by having home being so changed as to be unrecognizable. Yet, these characters are also gorgeously defiant: a teen mother when faced with constant questions about the “father” of her child reiterates the child is hers, even after being kicked out by her own mother. Ajọsẹ-Fisher’s characters act in ways that are true to their hearts, even if that means feeding grief instead of burying it. Full of precise detail, No God Like The Mother is storytelling at its best.
Dzanc Books: The Middle Daughter by Chika Unigwe
When Nani—the seventeen-year-old middle child in a loving if sometimes complicated family—loses her father and her older sister in the same year, she takes it arguably harder than her remaining sister and her mother. Nani, cannot reconcile this loss, and it opens a streak of rebellion. Yet, what might seem a relatively innocuous choice, defying her mother to go to a Christian prayer meeting with a young man Nani has been socializing with, turns into a decision that might derail the rest of her life. By twenty-four, she has three children with the aggressively evangelical man, has been coerced into marrying him, and in consequence is cut off from her wealthy Nigerian family. It is Nani’s children who keep her going, even as it becomes clearer and clearer to her that she has to break free of her husband’s grasp and his abuse. She knows how to leave, but she doesn’t know how to keep her children safe. Unigwe is a master at crafting characters readers will care about, and this deeply emotional novel leaves us supporting Nani at every turn. A redemptive and powerful story.
IG Publishing: Minor Prophets by Blair Hurley
When the leader of a fringe religious group relocates his family and his followers to the remote woods of the Upper Peninsula, Nora becomes integral to her father’s doomsday prophecies and his recruitment efforts. As she speaks in tongues and prophecies, her status in the church rises, and many of the members trust her implicitly. Yet, this creates a deep friction between her and her brother, and conflict between her parents; Nora’s mother—a powerful advocate for women in the compound—disagrees with how her daughter is being used to stoke religious fervor. By the time Nora is in her twenties, she leaves her father and forges a new life as a hospice nurse in Chicago, finding community among her coworkers, patients, and in online cult survivor communities. Yet, as Pentecost approaches, even though she has been gone from the woods for half a decade, she receives a message from the church that suggests she may not be free of their reach after all. Minor Prophets unwinds Nora’s story back to the day of her escape and through her learning to trust her instincts. A compelling literary coming of age story with elements of a psychological thriller.
Amble Press: The Fitful Sleep of Immigrants by Orlando Ortega-Medina
In late 1990s San Francisco, Marc is building a life with his partner Isaac in San Francisco. When Isaac—who fled violence in El Salvador in the 80’s—gets a notice about an immigration hearing that threatens deportation, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As they try to navigate what may happen if Isaac is not granted permission to remain in the US in a pre-marriage equality landscape, a deep secret from Marc’s past starts to bubble to the surface. Even though Marc is beginning to heal an estrangement with his prominent Jewish family, as his security in a partnership with Isaac and unreconciled past trauma becomes harder to keep a handle on, his seven-year sobriety is threatened. Throughout all of this, Marc, a lawyer, feels a pull toward a former client who is just as compelling as he is dangerous. Emotions run high throughout this novel, which tackles how everything from legal doctrine to addiction can wreak havoc on individuals and have a devastating ripple effect for families. Written with a raw directness, The Fitful Sleep of Immigrants compels readers to ask what they would do—and what they would forgive—for the people who they love.
University of Arkansas Press: Twenty Acres by Sarah Neidhardt
Disillusioned with the modern world and idealistic about living closer to nature, Sarah Neidhardt’s parents packed up from Colorado—a place that some other back-to-landers would seek out—and moved to small, isolated Fox, Arkansas to attempt living completely self-sufficiently and off-the-grid. In this memoir, Neidhardt examines her memories from that time, and also pinpoints one of the most particularly problematic parts of the back-to-the-land movement, which is that many of its participants were anchored in privilege. Tellingly, she notes that local friends and neighbors in Fox were trying to escape a life so tenuous, often without regular electricity or indoor plumbing, not embrace it. Still, hers was a childhood that was filled with books and music, and the particular freedom that is afforded rural kids to play on their own or with siblings and have no other mandate than to get back to the house before dark. In the idyllic moments, around a fire after a meal or outside in a mild summer as wildflowers bloom, the call to live simply rings clear. There’s a harder edge, though, too: sick children and no transportation, hauling and heating water for basic sanitation, and the constant stress of precarious finances. A memoir infused with both empathy and inquiry.
Vine Leaves Press: Love Like This by Cynthia Newberry Martin
When the last of Angelina’s three children leaves for college, rather than being saddened by the empty nest, she is delighted to have the family home to herself. A former nurse who left the field to focus on her daughters, she needs space to herself. Yet, only nine days later, her husband, Will, takes an unplanned early retirement after a dispute with his employer. Plus, Will wants to spend time with Angelina just as much as she wants to be alone. To get away from him, Angelina takes a job as a home-health aid and meets Lucy, who challenges Angelina’s ideas about what it means to have a fulfilling life. This novel asks what a long marriage is owed, and what togetherness means. Despite spending over two decades with her husband, Angelina doesn’t know. Love Like This is one woman’s journey to understand how to be true to herself and her desires, which take her in a direction she could have never imagined. A compelling novel about the changing nature of family and romantic love.
Mad Hat Press: Filthy Creation by Caroline Hagood
Dylan is a young but clearly talented visual artist who is trying to make sense of the loss of her father and figure out what her next steps in life are. At the same time, she is consumed by a crush on her neighbor and classmate, Shay, who has also lost her own father. When a famous photographer comes to their arts high school as a visiting lecturer, Dylan is drawn to him and discovers a connection to her mother’s past. Dylan has always made meaning through art, both for herself, and with her family. Reeling from her father’s death, unsure of what to make of the lecturer, and navigating what becomes an intense relationship with Shay, she finds herself unable to create. Filthy Creations looks at the concept of the art monster and draws on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to tell the story of a girl who is coming into her own as a woman, and also finding a better understanding of the people around her. This is the classic coming of age story infused with sexual awakening, feminism, adventure, and a reverence for both blood and chosen family. Hagood expertly captures what it is like to be young, when the world is a series of doors just waiting to be opened.
Book*hug Press: Big Shadow by Marta Balcewicz
In the summer of 1998, freshly graduated from high school, Judy spends her days documenting clouds with her cousin and his friend at his half-abandoned countryside home. They are a tight group, like siblings, but the young men are pulled into magical thinking about a “big shadow,” a cloud with a long reach that will possibly transport them to another dimension—or at least offer some action. After a chance encounter with Maurice Blunt, a former punk rocker and poet who has just enough clout left to land a summer teaching gig at the local university in Judy’s unnamed town, she becomes part of his orbit. She steals cash from the country estate to fly to meet him in New York where he commutes home for weekends, crashing in his comically sad apartment while her cousin covers for her, and obsessed by the idea that she could leave her old life behind and be a part of a real arts scene. Maurice is not quite motivated enough to be a true predator, but the difference in their ages and experiences reveals the depths of Judy’s naïveté and his desperation to be liked. Big Shadow is infused with familiar family dynamics, razor sharp descriptions, and absurd situations rendered cogent by Balcewicz’s clear prose.
Tin House: The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller
When a pandemic rips across the globe, Neffy signs up for a highly experimental vaccine trial in London, against the wishes of her family. Like the other volunteers, she is motivated not by pure altruism, but rather by the desire to escape her current situation. For Neffy, who is romantically entwined with her step-brother, still mourning the loss of her father, and has recently lost her job as a cephalopod researcher, the trial seems a place to think things over and get her life back on track. The others, Yahiko, Rachel, Piper, and Leon have their own reasons. Yet, when the impacts of the virus escalate quickly, the volunteers are abandoned by medical staff and forced to consider their basic existence. Leon, a failed tech entrepreneur, has a device that allows people to revisit memories with intense clarity, almost as if time traveling, and Neffy dives deep into her past. However, thirteen days after the beginning of the trial, as food is running out and the hospital generators fail, the cohort must make a decision about who they are to one another and how they will continue to live. Infused with both surprise and recognition, The Memory of Animals looks at the impossible choices sometimes required for survival.
Clash Books: The Longest Summer by Alexandrine Ogundimu
In the summer before he intends to go to graduate school, Victor Adewale is working at the local mall, in a store that is meant to be edgy. Victor keeps most of his relationships, both platonic and sexual, at an arm’s length, often telling himself he doesn’t care about other people and their feelings; this is a defense mechanism for him, as a closeted man raised by an abusive, alcoholic father who seemingly cares more about his country club membership than his son—and whose money Victor needs to fund grad school. That summer, an experimental drug from a local pharmaceutical company has made its way to the party scene, and there are echoes of Don DeLillo’s iconic Dylar in the blue bills called Dresdenol. When money from the safe at the mall store goes missing, Victor is the primary suspect. In addition to the missing money, many of his friends are caught in a web of using and selling Dresdenol, while Victor is fueled by alcohol and fear of his own mounting debt. Ultimately, Victor has to admit to himself who he is, and who he wants to be. The Longest Summer perfectly captures the liminal space between what is about to be the past and what is almost the future.
Two Dollar Radio: The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos by Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya
After being seriously injured in a soccer game in Tucson, twenty-one-year-old Gregorio Pasos is prescribed rest and painkillers by his physician. In his period of forced physical healing, Gregorio filters through his emotional memories to tell the story of his life thus far. Sincerely contemplative, the book is laced with the stories of deep friendships and connections both family and strangers, and readers learn of Gregorio’s profound ability to meet people where they are, whether it is caring for his dying uncle, caretaking a much older woman in exchange for a basement apartment, or congratulating his parents for divorcing amicably. His emotional generosity infuses what is a very serious book about loss—of jobs, of people, of stolen indigenous land, of home and even the idea of it—with a sense of quiet hope. Through Gregorio, Restrepo poses big questions about the nature of forgiveness and love, and what it means to live a life with an open heart. When it comes to Gregorio Pasos, “holy” is the absolute right word. An absolutely gorgeous book from a notable new voice in fiction.