People like to write think pieces on “peak TV,” referring to the flood of high-quality programs filling up our television screens. What’s often overlooked is the fact that we’re also living in “peak books.” Sadly, that means often only the books backed by bigger publishers—or written by bigger names—manage to rise above the noise. But if you only pay attention to the books from larger publishers, you’re missing out. This summer, there are plenty of small press books worth your time—and here are 12 of the them we’re particularly excited about.
The Tower of the Antilles, by Achy Obejas
This summer is the perfect opportunity to get to know the work of this Cuban-American writer. The stories collected in her new book tell the story of various Cubas—Cuba throughout the ages, Cuba from different perspectives, but always Cuba in all its vibrant, troubled, conflicting beauty, each beginning and ending with the question “What is your name?”
A Fugitive in Walden Woods, by Norman Lock
Lock’s novels all use a classic work of American literature as a leaping-off point—and we do mean leaping. His newest leverages Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in the story of Sam Long, an escaped slave who makes his way to New England in the 1840s, where he falls in with a group of abolitionist intellectuals, Thoreau among them. Long captures the distinct personalities of these famous thinkers with uncanny ease, and never loses sight of the gulf that yawns between Long and the people who supposedly regard him as an equal.
Hollow, by Owen Egerton
An incredibly imaginative examination of grief, faith, and the relationship between the two. Egerton spins out the story of Oliver Bonds, a former religious studies professor who loses everything when his toddler son dies under mysterious circumstances and Bonds’ involvement is scrutinized. Three years later, Bonds is living alone in a remote shack and eating at the soup kitchen he once volunteered for. A grifter with a belief in “hollow earth” conspiracy theories is the unlikely catalyst for Bonds’ rebirth, as he latches onto a new kind of faith in his search for solace. An unexpectedly thrilling story of sadness and belief.
Dirt Road, by James Kelman
Kelman’s affecting novel is about teenage boy Murdo, who has lost both his mother and sister in quick, shocking succession. He and his father, Tom, can barely communicate, trapped in an amber of tragedy. When Tom takes them on a holiday to America without any clear ending date, Murdo understand intuitively that this is somehow okay and necessary, and they find themselves almost randomly in the south, where folk and country music starts to weave its way into their lives, transforming them, and possibly showing them a way forward. An absorbing examination of America from the outside, and a moving story of grief.
Beyond the High Blue Air, by Lu Spinney
This heartbreaking memoir tells the story of Miles, Lu Spinney’s son, who sinks into a coma after a horrifying snowboarding accident. Miles slowly emerges into what doctor’s officially diagnose as a “minimally conscious state” that allows very limited communication, and Spinney tells the story of how the family organizes itself around the hope that Miles might one day return to them. Along the way she ruminates about the peculiar horror of missing someone who is still technically there, and the final gutpunch when they are prevented from ending Miles’ life compassionately, even though they are convinced it’s what he wants as well. You won’t read a more powerful true story this summer.
Night Class, by Victor Corona
If you’ve ever wondered what the wild and crazy New York City nightlife scene is like, but can’t imagine diving in, Corona, a sociology professor at NYU, has done the work for you. In a series of personal essays, interviews, and history lessons on topics ranging from Andy Warhol to Lady Gaga, Corona depicts a separate universe filled with brilliant artists who are their own canvas, dangerous power brokers, and drug dealers. If you’ve ever wanted to understand how New York nightlife produces artists and performers from the raw materials of music, substances, and that eerie timelessness between midnight and dawn, Corona’s book is a fascinating dive into a glittering world.
Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash
Habash’s debut tells a story set in the ruthless and often ruthlessly boring world of student athletes. Steven Forster—officially known as Stephen Florida due to a clerical error no force in the universe can change—wrestles for Oregsburg College in North Dakota. He’s fixated on his last chance to win the state championship, and the true pleasure of the novel is the revelation of Stephen’s interior life as contrasted with the regimented, joyless routine of his exterior one. This is a fantastic book, starring one of the most fully-fleshed characters you’ll meet this summer.
Kings of Broken Things, by Theodore Wheeler
In a story set in 1919 that informs our understanding of the events of today, Wheeler focuses on three distinct characters as they make their way in post-World War I America. An immigrant finds prosperity and belonging in the new sport of baseball, a woman being kept by a married man searches for a way out of her constricting life, and a rootless man is drawn into a life of crime. As waves of traumatized soldiers stream home from Europe and black migrant workers head north seeking a better life, everything leads up to the Omaha Race Riots, an explosive moment in America’s history ripe for a literary examination.
Sip, by Brian Allen Carr
Carr’s premise is crazy and wonderful in equal measure: people discover that you can get high by drinking your own shadow. If you consume your entire shadow, you go seeking the shadows’ of others. What happens next should be obvious: society collapses, as everyone indulges and shadow-addicted hordes rampage, seeking anyone whose shadow they can sip. A new balance is established, with people living in domed cities, protected at all times from natural light, and those outside living in constant danger. Three friends in Texas band together to survive in this awful future—a future you’re going to want to learn more about.
Swinging on a Star, by David Trinidad
David Trinidad off-kilter subjects (The Flintstones, Buddy Holly, invented quotes from Emily Dickinson) and bold language choices make his poetry leap from the page. Trinidad’s the sort of poet you find yourself quoting without even realizing it, slipping his marvelous sentences into your daily conversation; his new book deserves to be on more summer reading lists.
Darkansas, by Jarret Middleton
Middleton’s tale is irresistibly gothic: Jordan Bayne is the son of legendary bluegrass musician Walker Bayne. He’s talented, but a series of bad decisions find him locked into a low-rent tour of dive bars, drinking and womanizing far too much. He returns home for the wedding of his twin brother just as he discovers a disturbing bit of family history: since the Civil War, every generation of male Baynes have been twins—and in every generation, one of the twins murdered their father. Diving down a rabbit hole of a dark family secrets, Jordan discovers there are people who have a vested interest in ensuring the Bayne family tradition lives on. How can you resist that setup?
Moonbath, by Yanick Lahens
Lahens is the literary voice of Haiti. In Moonbath, she’s created a haunting, lyrical story about a single family in a small village in that half-island nation. Haiti has a tradition of “rural novels” or “peasant novels,” and Lahens’ newest promises to be a celebration of that tradition, following four generations of women who fight to keep their family and their way of life intact as violence, natural disaster, and politics buffet them from all sides. If your goal is to expand your literary palate, this is a perfect choice for your summer reading.