Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin. Penguin Books, $16.
Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk is the author’s debut — a collection of slice-of-life short stories about girls and young women navigating life. The book’s 16 stories mostly focus on the intricacies of relationships in the form of the romantic (breakups, divorces and infidelities) and platonic (friendship, siblinghood and the loss of loved ones). Lazarin’s style is incredibly understated, taking a glimpse into her characters’ seemingly everyday lives, while still offering depth, empathy and a peek into unspoken desires. My favorites from this collection are “Floor Plans” and “Appetite.” — Meerah Powell
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson. Random House, $27.
By now, Denis Johnson’s seminal short story collection, Jesus’ Son, has been properly recognized not just as a cult classic but a classic, period — a universally adored work of trashed transcendence whose ripples are still being felt a quarter century after its release. It’s a book that is passed lovingly from reader to reader, like something sacred and a bit dangerous, and in a sense this sainted collection not only cemented Johnson’s reputation but froze it: Would he ever top his masterpiece? The answer is yes and no. No — because who could, really? — and yes, because his gift before death in 2017 was to bring the youthful fury and self-destructive striving of Jesus’ Son to bear on his own mortality in the posthumous collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Elegaic, bittersweet and yet ever generous of soul, these short stories singe where his previous collection seared, and the results are no less devastating and tragicomic. Not exactly a sequel, the collection nonetheless provides a bookend of sorts, with story after story portraying a narrator reeling from the consequences of life’s mostly bad decisions as he stares down his own impending oblivion, with humor, candor and a slouching toward redemption. Johnson was one of our finest writers, and Largesse is a fitting epitaph to a career spent wrestling with the angels and demons of existence. — Rick Levin
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Mariner Books, $14.99.
In his impressive debut, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah delivers a collection of short stories that present an all-too-familiar and cruel world through the lens of Black America. Though the stories range from the utterly surreal and wonderfully bizarre to straight up dystopian horror, the humanity of the characters will ground you in the present day muck of racism, capitalism, and a general lack of love and acceptance of one another. The language is often violent though wholly delightful to the senses.
The first story is particularly upsetting as we witness the narrator’s dizzying battle with gruesome injustice, both within himself and with the broken system around him. There is a beauty in this character’s breakdown that is especially moving, which echoes the sentiment of the entire collection. While each piece serves as its own entity, there is a fluidigy to the collection, mostly in the way the essence of that first narrator is seen through to the end.
Friday Black is truly one of the best debut’s I’ve read. This is what the textual model for both history and literature should look like in the future, if not now. — Alexis Reid