Start at the very beginning
Discovering a new favorite writer is one of the joys of life for any reader. And while it’s exciting to find that your new obsession has a lengthy backlist, there’s something especially satisfying about knowing you’ve been with them from book one. Here are 10 notable summer debuts—pick one up now, and you can say you knew them when.
When gilded lives begin to shatter
People are bound to be drawn to a novel written by Herman Melville’s great-great-great-granddaughter. But while author Liza Klaussmann’s literary roots may initially attract some readers to Tigers in Red Weather, her literary abilities will keep them riveted.
Tigers in Red Weather is one of the most anticipated novels of the summer season, and rightly so. The prose is crisp, plot enticing and pacing masterful. Told from the points of view of five engaging characters whose names, privilege and circumstances can be compared to those in The Great Gatsby, the dialogue and storyline here are as compelling as the sense of promise cousins Nick (a female) and Helena feel at the novel’s start.
It’s September 1945. Nick and Helena have just spent another summer on Martha’s Vineyard, lounging in the sun and hosting harborside gin parties at Tiger House in Edgartown, the family home their grandfather designed. Love, however, is about to change their lives. Nick’s husband is returning home from war, and Helena is moving to California to marry an insurance salesman. But not all lives turned out as planned, and there’s often a fine line between love and loathing. In Tigers in Red Weather, self-loathing and a loathing of others (some justified, some not), lead to infidelity, cruelty, drug abuse and the slow, painful unraveling of Nick and Helena’s once-solid family. Matters come to a head when Nick and Helena’s teenaged children discover a Portuguese maid murdered on the beach near Tiger House—her skull cracked open and her neck black from being strangled. Who is responsible?
Spanning more than 20 years and two generations, Tigers in Red Weather is a richly crafted story in which the setting is as much a character as those who inhabit it. A longtime journalist for the New York Times and winner of Barnard College’s Howard M. Teichmann Prize for creative writing, Klaussmann has created an exquisite and evocative story of family secrets that leaves the reader exhausted, exhilarated and, in tiger fashion, roaring for more.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE
Read an interview with Liza Klaussmann for Tigers in Red Weather.
Growing through the grief
Carol Rifka Brunt’s astonishing first novel is so good, there’s no need to grade on a curve: Tell the Wolves I’m Home is not only one of the best debuts of 2012, it’s one of the best books of the year, plain and simple. It’s the story of 14-year-old June Elbus, a quirky outcast fiercely attached to her uncle Finn, a famous painter who is dying of AIDS. It is only with Finn that June can unload her deepest desires and fears, so when Finn dies and June discovers his own cache of secrets, the bottom drops out of her world. Questioning everything she has ever known, June will risk all that she has—even losing her uncle all over again—to discover the man Finn truly was and to become the young woman only Finn could see.
In a literary landscape overflowing with coming-of-age stories, Tell the Wolves I’m Home rises above the rest. The narrative is as tender and raw as an exposed nerve, pulsing with the sharpest agonies and ecstasies of the human condition. Exploring the very bones of life—love, loss and family—this compassionate and vital novel will rivet readers until the very end, when all but the stoniest will be moved to tears. If Brunt has managed to produce this stunning novel on her first attempt, there is no telling just how far her star will rise. The smart money says the sky’s the limit.
Read an interview about Tell the Wolves I'm Home.
The treasures of Egypt
Before she became a heroine of the Crimean War, and before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert each traveled to Egypt—and, reportedly, glimpsed each other on the Nile. Though the historical record suggests that they did not actually meet, in poet Enid Shomer’s rich and imaginative novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, they do, igniting a passionate friendship that both inspired and repelled.
Though the enfant terrible of French letters and the Lady of the Lamp might not seem to have many similarities, in 1849 both were searching for a larger purpose to their lives. Nightingale had just turned down a marriage proposal and Flaubert had just dropped out of law school and was mourning the death of his sister. He had also written his first novel, deemed unpublishable by a group of close friends. Both suffered from maladies; Flaubert had recurring seizures, which were probably epilepsy, and Nightingale endured debilitating depression. A trip down the Nile was an opportunity to refresh their minds and stimulate their senses. Most importantly it was a chance to leave their families behind.
In The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, so called after the many rooms the sun god Ra was said to pass through on his sacred journey from sunset to sunrise, Flaubert and Nightingale are both traveling the river with arranged stops at archaeological sites such as Philae and Abu Simbel. Flaubert was traveling with his friend Max Du Camp, an amateur photographer and archaeologist; Nightingale was with family friends and a lady’s maid, Trout. Shomer suggests that the strange surroundings provided opportunities for Flaubert and Nightingale to confide their deepest wishes and fears to one another, and the intensity of the environment, with its extreme temperatures and strange fauna, encouraged their closeness.
The striking Egyptian ruins serve as a perfect backdrop for the intensity of the characters and the plot gets a comic, though not wholly successful, twist in an apparent desert kidnapping. But the novel shines brightly as a thoughtful study of these two singular geniuses, a story Shomer tells with a deep understanding of the poignancy of human connection.
Finding magic in a time of cruelty
Stories enrich us in different ways. They entertain us and take us to faraway lands. They give insight into the lives of others, and aid us in our own introspection. For Raami, the child narrator of In the Shadow of the Banyan, stories bring salvation, giving her the strength to survive the Cambodian genocide. Raami contracted polio as an infant, and her father tells her stories from a young age, saying, “When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly . . . I told you stories to give you wings.” Raami holds these stories inside herself during impossible circumstances, maintaining the will to live.
This haunting debut novel is based on the amazing life story of author Vaddey Ratner, who was five when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s. Like Raami, she was born as minor royalty, forced out of her home in Phnom Penh, separated from family members and forced to perform hard labor until she nearly starved. In an author’s note, Ratner explains that she wrote a novel instead of a memoir because she wanted to reinvent and reimagine her experiences where “memory alone is inadequate.” Although the fictionalized story of Raami—who is seven when the story begins—stands on its own, the reader’s knowledge of Ratner’s close personal connection to the material makes the novel feel even more intimate and devastating.
Remarkably, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an uplifting story, as Raami’s humanity—her fierce choice of life—is juxtaposed with the cruelty around her. Ratner’s lyrical prose and graceful descriptions serve as a lovely counterpart to bleak situations, reminding us of literature’s ability to transcend. Her novel will no doubt inspire readers to learn more about this painful chapter in world history.
The real housewives of Berlin
David R. Gillham is making quite the splash with his gripping portrait of an ordinary World War II hausfrau in extraordinary circumstances: Praise has been lavished on City of Women by historical fiction brethren Alan Furst, Margaret Leroy and Paula McLain, and rights have been sold in multiple countries. Not too shabby for a first-time novelist. And also not surprising. Full of sharp twists, sex, muddy morals and a Berlin that breathes, Gillham’s thriller delivers.
Beautiful, dutiful Sigrid Schröder is an apparently perfect German wife—other than the fact that she’s borne no children for the Fatherland—but she has a secret. Instead of thinking of her husband freezing on the Russian front line while she peels rotting potatoes and puts up with her razor-tongued Party member mother-in-law, she recalls the heat of the lover who recently swept in and out of her life. He was mysterious, but this much she knows: He was a Jew, and she desperately wants him back. Even so, she largely turns a blind eye to the Reich’s cruelties, feeling powerless against its might. But when her rebellious, secretive young neighbor confronts her with a stark choice, Sigrid must decide whether she is brave enough to save the lives of complete strangers.
A thriller full of twists, sex, muddy morals and a Berlin that breathes.
Gillham has studied the Second World War and women’s roles in it for more than two decades, and it shows. Berlin’s streets circa 1943 come to life—not just the sights, sounds and smells, but also the tension in the air. Who can be trusted?
The author ably depicts the strengths, desires and fears of women in a city both nearly emptied of its men and permeated with betrayal. His vivid characters keep the pages turning while the historical details enlighten and deftly underpin his complex plot. Readers who like their intrigue charged with big issues and warmed by very human needs will enjoy their hours in Sigrid’s shoes.
Read an interview about City of Women.
Deep into the heart of the jungle
Thrillers centered on the search for some ancient artifact have been popping up with dizzying regularity ever since Dan Brown made his name (and millions) with them. Seattle author Kim Fay’s first novel is certainly the tale of a daring search: a search for a valuable artifact, yes, but also one for self-worth, redemption and understanding.
Irene Blum arrives in 1925 Shanghai on a mission to recover a set of priceless copper scrolls detailing the history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization, which have long been believed to be lost. She seeks the help of Khmer expert and temple robber Simone Merlin. But the journey isn’t an easy one. Simone’s domineering husband is in the way of their mission, a dangerous jungle awaits and the world of French-colonized Cambodia is full of hidden agendas and very little trust.
Fay has already made a name for herself with award-winning Asian travel writing, and her first foray into fiction is proof both of her expertise in and love for the region. The prose of The Map of Lost Memories is full of lush details, from the elegance of Shanghai to the musty damp of the Cambodian jungle—but more importantly, it’s packed with the kind of drama that many other novels of its kind lack. Thrilling and ambitious, this is a book to get lost in, a book that homes in on the human drama of the quest and never lets go.
The Map of Lost Memories is a rich debut—perfect not just for lovers of historical fiction, but for lovers of unusual journeys filled with powerful revelations.
Hope springs from a childhood imagination
An Englishwoman in her 30s moves into an apartment without heat but with plenty of rats and noise. She has spent a decade in prison. Faces from the past resurface. As she puts her world together, we wonder what put her away: Did she really shoot that boy by mistake? Who was she aiming at? British writer I.J. Kay’s masterful debut, Mountains of the Moon, holds so much more than that one mystery. It folds readers into an entire life, and it is gripping, technically stunning and truly original.
Lulu is an abused child. Her mother neglects her and wants to be back on a stage; her stepfather beats them; her older half-brother gets the chance to live with his father and leaves. Lulu copes by pretending she is a Masai warrior, running through the hills of “Africa” with her red cape and makeshift spear. The arrival of Baby Grady gives her something to care for; a surrogate mother at 10, she takes Grady up into the trees she loves, escaping the terror of “Daddy” Bryce. A shocking accident sets her on a new path. Twenty years later, when she makes it to Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, her dreamed-of “Mountains of the Moon,” she must come to terms with all that has come to pass.
Lulu’s story jumps around in time as it unfolds in determinedly non-chronological order. The result is a dense, challenging novel that is also incredibly rewarding. Seemingly every phrase has a structural purpose and emotional resonance; when one doubles back to check something along the path, a different discovery astonishes. We are two-thirds through when we walk into the relationship that changed young Lulu’s life. In name, this love is wrong, but in Kay’s hands it is beautiful, rendered with pitch-perfect tenderness. It is also a crucial puzzle piece, changing what came before.
Full of hidden gems of connection, the novel begs for multiple readings. One wonders, based on this beyond impressive debut, where I.J. Kay (a pseudonym) will take us next.
An intimate social satire
The premise of Maggie Shipstead’s debut novel sounds like a typical beach read: A family gathers at a New England summer home for a wedding weekend and—surprise, surprise—nothing goes as planned. But Shipstead’s writing is so precise, her characters so nuanced, her plot so unexpected, that Seating Arrangements is anything but a breezy poolside read.
One thing that sets the novel apart from the pack is its narrator. We don’t get the story of Daphne Van Meter’s wedding from the bride herself, or from her troubled, envious little sister Livia, as one might expect; rather, it’s the middle-aged father of the bride, Winn Van Meter, who leads us through the twisting, turning events of the weekend.
Winn loves his daughters and his wife, but he doesn’t understand them. In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand much. He is obsessed with outward appearances and his social status—to the detriment of his family, his marriage and his mental health. Shipstead completely inhabits Winn and all his neuroses, painting a devastating picture of a man in crisis during what should be one of the happiest times of his life. This is social satire at its best, a novel examining a group of people who seem to have it all and are, for the most part, completely falling apart. The bride is beautiful and happy, but she’s also heavily pregnant. Livia, the maid of honor, is too busy nursing her own heartbreak to fulfill her sisterly obligations.
Seating Arrangements is not a novel about a wedding. It’s a novel about family, marriage and what it means to belong. Like J. Courtney Sullivan in Maine or Galt Niederhoffer in The Romantics, Shipstead places deeply flawed characters in an idyllic setting and creates an unforgettable world.
A breathtaking journey on two wheels
From the dusty and dangerous roads of China’s ancient city of Kashgar, circa 1923, to the immigrant underground in present-day London, Suzanne Joinson beckons readers with lush, evocative prose, yet never lets her gift for poetry interfere with a good story—or, to be more precise, two good stories. While eight decades divide the dual narratives of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, heroines Eva and Frieda are tethered by the timeless themes of love, loss and redemption.
The novel opens as Evangeline “Eva” English and her younger sister Lizzie arrive in Kashgar, where they have been dispatched as missionaries. The fragile Lizzie is driven by her religious fervor, but Eva is merely going along for the ride—literally. She hopes to channel her wanderlust and fledgling literary skills into a travel book titled, of course, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, offering up tips for bicycle riding which also serve as eloquent metaphors for life lessons.
Like the best bicycle rides, Joinson's literary debut is an invigorating delight.
Joinson brings us an equally enigmatic but distinctly different heroine in Frieda. The modern-day single woman is juggling an unsatisfying career, a toxic affair with a loutish married man and a budding friendship with Tayeb, a sensitive artist who also happens to be a homeless illegal immigrant on the lam.
Readers of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar are certain to enjoy a literary journey that is not unlike the best bicycle ride—invigorating and challenging, with plenty of hills, vales and scenic views to keep one’s blood pumping and spirits soaring.
Talkin' about war down in Texas
The year is 2004, and the war in Iraq slogs on, with rising casualties and no sign of the weapons of mass destruction. When a squad of brave soldiers comes to the aid of their ambushed comrades and the subsequent firefight is captured by an embedded Fox News camera team, the men become instant celebrities.
That’s the premise of Ben Fountain’s sly, raucous, occasionally bawdy first novel, one that recounts the wildly improbable Thanksgiving Day that eight members of Bravo squad, including Texas native Specialist Billy Lynn, spend as guests of the Dallas Cowboys. Fountain employs his ample satiric gifts to depict how flag-waving patriotism merges with our worship of professional football in a single manic event.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk teems with a host of colorful characters, starting with the members of Billy’s squad—men with nicknames like “A-bort” and “Load.” Accompanying them is a Hollywood producer who’s optioned their story and thinks he’s about to persuade Hilary Swank to sign on to the project. There are the nubile Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and the team’s slick, predatory owner. In a wickedly funny locker room scene, the football stars offer to make an excursion to Iraq (no more than a couple of weeks, of course) to polish off a few terrorists.
The fawning civilians (still recovering from the shock of “nina leven” and committed to the war on “terrRr”) are mesmerized by the soldiers’ courage, and yet somehow detached from their experience. Fountain perfectly captures the bewilderment of Billy and his cohorts at this phenomenon, made more poignant by the knowledge that the white Hummer limousine that will transport them from Texas Stadium at game’s end is the first step in their redeployment to Iraq.
No doubt there will be other novels that turn to humor to examine this troublesome period in our nation’s history. They will certainly find themselves up against some stiff competition when measured against this shrewd story.