It is another year in the 21st century, which means the odds are extremely likely there is about to be another Tournament of Books—2023 will be our 19th edition, which means in 2024, well wow.
One big reason we're able to mount this event year after year is the tremendous support of our presenting sponsor Field Notes. We use their gear personally—Rosecrans burns through an annual subscription each year—and deeply appreciate their partnership. For the holidays, might a friend or family member of yours perhaps want their Maggie Rogers-endorsed set? It's very nice.
The other big reason we're here is our Sustaining Members. Their support truly makes this event take place. If you aren't a Sustainer yet, it only takes a moment to join the crew today and play a role in keeping this event rolling. Sustaining Members also get 50 off everything at the TMN/Tournament of Books store. They also get our deep gratitude and affection.
So, here's how the ToB works. Each weekday in March, starting March 8, two books from the shortlist are read and evaluated by one of our judges. One of the books is chosen to advance to the next round, and the judge explains how they came to their decision, then the commentariat—people like you—express their feelings and thoughts about that decision and the books themselves. And the next day we do it all over again. This goes on, match after match through the month of March, until one book wins the Rooster—an award that entails threatening the winning's book author with a gift of a real live bird.
Will this be the first year an author accepts?
Finally, we need your Zombie vote today, or before midnight (Eastern) Friday, Dec. 16. That's because from the play-in round to the eight opening round matches, to the four quarterfinal matches, through the two semifinal matches, the field gets whittled down to two finalists. But before those books can enter the championship, they must endure a "Zombie Round," which restores two books that were eliminated previously during gameplay. As to which books return, it's determined by a popular vote, right here, right now, using the form below.
We'll have more news soon—e.g., how your family pet can play along this year!—so make sure you're signed up for the Rooster newsletter. Finally, a note to any businesses who love the Rooster and its thousands of hardcore readers: We have several sponsorships still available, email us to find out more!
Now get reading! See you in March.
The Shortlist for the 2023 Tournament of Books
Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers' summaries and edited for length. We get a cut from purchases made through the book links. Here is a spreadsheet of the full list. You can find all the shortlist titles on a Bookshop list.
Babel by R. F. Kuang
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he'll enroll in Oxford University's prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire's quest for colonization. For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
Fabienne is dead. Her childhood best friend, Agnès, receives the news in America, far from the French countryside where the two girls were raised—the place that Fabienne helped Agnès escape 10 years ago. Now Agnès is free to tell her story. As children in a war-ravaged backwater town, they'd built a private world, invisible to everyone but themselves—until Fabienne hatched the plan that would change everything, launching Agnès on an epic trajectory through fame, fortune, and terrible loss.
Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet
A man named Gil walks from New York to Arizona to recover from a failed love. After he arrives, new neighbors move into the glass-walled house next door and his life begins to mesh with theirs.
Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin
Beth and Fran spend their days traveling the ravaged New England coast, hunting feral men and harvesting their organs in a gruesome effort to ensure they'll never face the same fate. Robbie lives by his gun and one hard-learned motto: other people aren't safe. After a brutal accident entwines the three of them, this found family of survivors must navigate murderous TERFs, a sociopathic billionaire bunker brat, and awkward relationship dynamics—all while outrunning packs of feral men, and their own demons.
Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra
Fifteen years after immigrating to Los Angeles, Rome-born Maria is an associate producer at Mercury Pictures, trying to keep her personal and professional lives from falling apart. Her mother won't speak to her. Her boss, a man of many toupees, has been summoned to Washington by congressional investigators. Her boyfriend, a virtuoso Chinese American actor, can't escape the studio's narrow typecasting. And the studio itself, Maria's only home in exile, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. On the eve of America's entry into World War II, Mercury Pictures becomes a nexus of European émigrés: modernist poets trying their luck as B-movie screenwriters, once-celebrated architects becoming scale-model miniaturists, and refugee actors finding work playing the very villains they fled. While the world descends into war, Maria rises through a maze of conflicting politics, divided loyalties, and jockeying ambitions. But when the arrival of a stranger from her father's past threatens Maria's carefully constructed facade, she must finally confront her father's fate—and her own.
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson
In a first-class lounge at JFK airport, our narrator listens as Jeff Cook, a former classmate he only vaguely remembers, shares the uncanny story of his adult life—a life that changed course years before, the moment he resuscitated a drowning man. Jeff reveals that after that traumatic, galvanizing morning on the beach, he was compelled to learn more about the man whose life he had saved, convinced that their fates were now entwined. But are we agents of our fate—or are we its pawns? Upon discovering that the man is renowned art dealer Francis Arsenault, Jeff begins to surreptitiously visit his Beverly Hills gallery. Although Francis does not seem to recognize him as the man who saved his life, he nevertheless casts his legendary eye on Jeff and sees something worthy. He takes the younger man under his wing, initiating him into his world, where knowledge, taste, and access are currency; a world where value is constantly shifting and calling into question what is real, and what matters.
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Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley
Kiara and her brother, Marcus, are scraping by in an East Oakland apartment complex optimistically called the Regal-Hi. Both have dropped out of high school, their family fractured by death and prison. But while Marcus clings to his dream of rap stardom, Kiara hunts for work to pay their rent—which has more than doubled—and to keep the nine-year-old boy next door, abandoned by his mother, safe and fed. One night, what begins as a drunken misunderstanding with a stranger turns into the job Kiara never imagined wanting but now desperately needs: nightcrawling. Her world breaks open even further when her name surfaces in an investigation that exposes her as a key witness in a massive scandal within the Oakland Police Dept.
Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance by Alison Espach
For much of her life, Sally Holt has been mystified by the things her older sister, Kathy, seems to have been born knowing. Kathy has answers for all of Sally's questions about life, about love, and about Billy Barnes, a rising senior and local basketball star who mans the concession stand at the town pool. The girls have been fascinated by Billy ever since he jumped off the roof in elementary school, but Billy has never shown much interest in them until the summer before Sally begins eighth grade. By then, their mutual infatuation with Billy is one of the few things the increasingly different sisters have in common. Sally spends much of that summer at the pool, watching in confusion and excitement as her sister falls deeper in love with Billy—until a tragedy leaves Sally's life forever intertwined with his.
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
It's 2017, and Olga and her brother, Pedro "Prieto" Acevedo, are boldfaced names in their hometown of New York. Prieto is a popular congressman representing their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood in Brooklyn, while Olga is the tony wedding planner for Manhattan's power brokers. Despite their alluring public lives, behind closed doors things are far less rosy. Sure, Olga can orchestrate the love stories of the 1 percent but she can't seem to find her own… until she meets Matteo, who forces her to confront the effects of long-held family secrets. Olga and Prieto's mother, Blanca, a Young Lord turned radical, abandoned her children to advance a militant political cause, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother. Now, with the winds of hurricane season, Blanca has come barreling back into their lives.
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
1980, Pass Christian, Miss.: It is three in the morning when Bobby Western zips the jacket of his wet suit and plunges from the Coast Guard tender into darkness. His dive light illuminates the sunken jet, nine bodies still buckled in their seats, hair floating, eyes devoid of speculation. Missing from the crash site are the pilot's flight bag, the plane's black box, and the tenth passenger. But how? A collateral witness to machinations that can only bring him harm, Western is shadowed in body and spirit—by men with badges; by the ghost of his father, inventor of the bomb that melted glass and flesh in Hiroshima; and by his sister, the love and ruin of his soul.
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty
Ethereally beautiful and formidably intelligent, Blandine shares her apartment with three teenage boys she neither likes nor understands, all, like her, now aged out of the state foster care system that has repeatedly failed them, all searching for meaning in their lives.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Edwin St. Andrew is 18 years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal—an experience that shocks him to his core. Two centuries later, Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She's traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive's best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him. When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: the exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe. (As the winner of Camp ToB 2022, Sea of Tranquility receives an automatic berth in the 2023 Tournament of Books.)
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka
Colombo, 1990. Maali Almeida—war photographer, gambler, and closet queen—has woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. His dismembered body is sinking in the serene Beira Lake and he has no idea who killed him. In a country where scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers, and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long, as the ghouls and ghosts with grudges who cluster round can attest. But even in the afterlife, time is running out for Maali. He has seven moons to contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to the photos that will rock Sri Lanka.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn't heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even 25 years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won't protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.
The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb
Growing up Black in rural North Carolina, Ray McMillian's life is already mapped out. If he's lucky, he'll get a job at the hospital cafeteria. If he's extra lucky, he'll earn more than minimum wage. But Ray has a gift and a dream—he's determined to become a world-class professional violinist, and nothing will stand in his way. When he discovers that his great-great-grandfather's beat-up old fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, all his dreams suddenly seem within reach. Together, Ray and his violin take the world by storm. But on the eve of the renowned and cutthroat Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—the violin is stolen, a ransom note for five million dollars left in its place. Ray will have to piece together the clues to recover his treasured Strad… before it's too late. With the descendants of the man who once enslaved Ray's great-great-grandfather asserting that the instrument is rightfully theirs, and with his family staking their own claim, Ray doesn't know who he can trust—or whether he will ever see his beloved violin again.
Play-in round books
This year's theme is "consequences of the present day." Will there be any? Hey let's find out.
2 A.M. in Little America by Ken Kalfus
Ron Patterson is an American who finds himself on distant shores, working as a repairman and sharing a room with other refugees. In an unnamed city wedged between ocean and lush mountainous forest, Ron can almost imagine a stable life for himself. Especially when he makes the first friend he has had in years—a mysterious migrant named Marlise, who bears a striking resemblance to a onetime classmate. Nearly a decade later—after anti-migrant sentiment has put their whirlwind intimacy and asylum to an end—Ron is living in "Little America," an enclave of migrants in one of the few countries still willing to accept them. Here, among reminders of his past life, he again begins to feel that he may have found a home. Ron adopts a stray dog, observes his neighbors, and lands a repairman job that allows him to move through the city quietly. But this newfound security, too, is quickly jeopardized, as resurgent political divisions threaten the fabric of Little America. Tapped as an informant against the rise of militant gangs and contending with the appearance of a strangely familiar woman, Ron is suddenly on dangerous and uncertain ground.
An Island by Karen Jennings
Samuel has lived alone on a small island off the coast of an unnamed African country for more than two decades. He tends to his garden, his lighthouse, and his chickens, content with a solitary life. Routinely, the nameless bodies of refugees wash ashore, but Samuel—who understands that the government only values certain lives, certain deaths—always buries them himself. One day, though, he finds that one of these bodies is still breathing. As he nurses the stranger back to life, Samuel—feeling unsettled and strangely threatened—is soon swept up in memories of his former life as a political prisoner on the mainland: a life that saw his country exploited under colonial rule, followed by a period of revolution and a brief, hard-won independence, only for the cycle of suffering to continue under a cruel dictator. And he can't help but recall his own shameful role in that history. In this stranger's presence he begins to consider, as he did in his youth: What does it mean to own land, or to belong to it? And what does it cost to have—and lose—a home?
My Volcano by John Elizabeth Stintzi
On June 2, 2016, a protrusion of rock growing from the Central Park Reservoir is spotted by a jogger. Three weeks later, when it finally stops growing, it's nearly two-and-a-half miles tall, and has been determined to be an active volcano. As the volcano grows and then looms over New York, an eight-year-old boy in Mexico City finds himself transported 500 years into the past, where he witnesses the fall of the Aztec Empire; a Nigerian scholar in Tokyo studies a folktale about a woman of fire who descends a mountain and destroys an entire village; a white trans writer in Jersey City struggles to write a sci-fi novel about a thriving civilization on an impossible planet; a nurse tends to Syrian refugees in Greece while grappling with the trauma of living through the bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan; a nomadic farmer in Mongolia is stung by a bee, magically transforming him into a green, thorned, flowering creature that aspires to connect every living thing into its consciousness.
Download the 2023 brackets, make your predictions, place your bets. For now, your guesses are as good as ours.
This Year's Judges
Abayomi Animashaun (he/him) is the author of three poetry collections and editor of three anthologies. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and a poetry editor at The Comstock Review. / abayomianimashaun.com
Ahsan Butt (he/him) is a writer whose short fiction and essays have appeared in West Branch, Split Lip Magazine, the Massachusetts Review, the Normal School, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is currently a senior editor at South Asian Avant Garde: A Dissident Literary Anthology (SAAG). / ahsanb.com
A. Cerisse Cohen (she/her) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, the Nation, Artsy, and other publications. She mostly covers art and books. / alinaccohen.wixsite.com
Adam Dalva's (he/him) writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Atlantic. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is the senior fiction editor of Guernica magazine. / adamdalva.com
Nathan Deuel (he/him) is the author of Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East. He is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written essays, short fiction, and reviews for the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Harper's, and the Paris Review, among others. A continuing lecturer at UCLA's Writing Programs, he lives in Venice Beach, where the surf forecast often calls for a Poor to Fair swell of two to three feet. / nathandeuel.com
Summer Farah (she/her) is a Palestinian American poet and editor who serves as the outreach coordinator for the Radius of Arab American Writers. / summerfarah.com
Torsa Ghosal (she/her) is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind (Ohio State University Press), and an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India). Her fiction, essays, and other writing appear in Berkeley Fiction Review, the Massachusetts Review, Catapult, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Bustle, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Sacramento, and a host of the Narrative for Social Justice podcast. / torsaghosal.com
Calvin Kasulke (he/him) is the author of the novel Several People Are Typing. His work has appeared in VICE, MEL Magazine, DC Comics, and elsewhere. He lives in Queens with his dog Jeff. / calvinkasulke.com
ML Kejera (he/him) is an Illinois-based Gambian writer. His work has previously been published, or is forthcoming, in Strange Horizons, adda, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Nation. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. / @KejeraL
Lauren Markham (she/her) is a writer based in northern California. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, and her stories, essays, and journalism have appeared in outlets such as the New York Times Magazine, Freeman's, Orion, Harper's, the Atlantic, and Guernica. / laurenmarkham.info
Christina Orlando (they/them) is the books editor for Tor.com, where they get to be a book nerd all day. They are a 2019 recipient of Spotify's Sound Up grant for people of color in podcasting and a 2021 Publisher's Weekly Star Watch Honoree. Christina currently resides in Brooklyn, NY, with their queer found family. / christinaorlando.com
Aminah Mae Safi (she/her) is the award-winning author of four novels, including Tell Me How You Really Feel and Travelers Along the Way: a Robin Hood Remix. She's an erstwhile art historian, a fan of Cholula on popcorn, and an un-ironic lover of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Her writing has been featured on Bustle and Salon and her award-winning short stories can be found in Fresh Ink and the forthcoming Freshman Orientation (2023) and Out of Our League (2024). / aminahmae.com
Santiago Jose Sanchez (they/them) is the debut author of the novel Hombrecito, forthcoming from Riverhead. They're a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where they were a Truman Capote Fellow, and a current Mellon Fellow in Fiction at Grinnell College. Their stories have been published in McSweeney's, ZYZZYVA, Subtropics, Joyland, and distinguished in the Best American Short Stories. / @sntsnchz
Nicola Twilley (she/her) is co-author of Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine, named a best book of 2021 by Time, NPR, and the Financial Times, and the Guardian, as well as co-host of the award-winning podcast Gastropod, which looks at food through the lens of science and history. She is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. / @nicolatwilley
Olivia Waite (she/her) writes queer historical romance, fantasy, science fiction, and essays. She is the romance fiction columnist for the New York Times Book Review. / oliviawaite.com
Katy Waldman (she/her) is a staff writer at the New Yorker, for which she writes about books, culture, and more. Previously, she was a staff writer at Slate and the host of the Slate's Audio Book Club podcast. She won the National Book Critics Circle's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 2019 and the American Society of Magazine Editors' award for journalists under 30 in 2018. / @xwaldie
Xuan Juliana Wang (she/her) was born in Heilongjiang, China, but after age seven has done most of her growing up in Los Angeles and New York. She is the author of the short-story collection Home Remedies. / @xuanjuliana