Talented first-timers take the stage
Every season brings another crop of new writers hoping to make their mark on the literary world. We dug through the stacks of summer debuts to find authors whose first novels deserve a place on your reading list.
An immigrant's tale
Just when the publishing world is ready to assert that nothing good ever comes out of the slush pile, a talent like Stephen Kelman comes along. The 34-year-old Englishman—who before turning to writing worked in jobs ranging from house-cleaner to warehouse operative—began his novel, Pigeon English, in response to a spate of news stories about British youth violence. But he also called upon his own childhood experience, which was not unlike that of Hari Opuku, the narrator of this electric debut.
An 11-year-old Ghanaian immigrant who loves sneakers, YouTube and driving his older sister crazy, Hari is decidedly a child. Yet he’s also wise beyond his years—growing up as part of a London housing project’s insular community of illegal aliens, addicts and knife-wielding thugs will do that to a kid. Indeed, violence is a common occurrence, and one Hari describes with as much honesty, humor and emotion as he does a grade-school crush or the pigeon that regularly visits his balcony. Still, when one of his classmates is killed in the street, Hari does feel deeply moved and decides, along with his best friend Dean, to solve the crime using techniques gleaned from episodes of “CSI.” But while his attempts to go undercover and obtain DNA samples may seem comical, as the duo comes closer to the truth (and the murderer), their adventures grow ever more dangerous.
Hari’s joie de vivre is infectious, and his voice simultaneously charming and haunting—similar to the narrators of Emma Donoghue’s Room or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And much like those books, Pigeon English is a story for adults whose success rests almost entirely on the unreliability of a child’s interpretation. Were Kelman to have entrusted this tale to an older teller, we’d no doubt lose the excitement, immediacy and hopefulness that infuses it.
Read an interview with Stephen Kelman about Pigeon English.
The angel of Afghanistan
Only someone who has actually served as a wartime diplomat in northern Afghanistan could craft a novel as heartbreaking, real and compelling as Patricia McArdle’s Farishta. Winner of Amazon’s 2010 Breakthrough Novel Award, Farishta is the story of 47-year-old American foreign service officer Angela Morgan, who 21 years earlier lost both her husband and her unborn baby when the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed. Still in mourning and suffering from PTSD, Angela has reached a dead end in both her personal and professional lives. An emotional wreck, she is given a choice by her U.S. State Department superiors: retire early or accept an assignment at an isolated British Army compound in the dangerous—and devastatingly poor—Balkh province of Afghanistan, where she will be the only woman and only American.
Angela’s reluctant acceptance takes her, along with readers, to a place few see: a stark area of Afghanistan where women are imprisoned for “marriage crimes,” families burn garbage for cooking fuel and archaeologists fight as hard as soldiers to save 2,000-year-old Hellenistic treasures.
New York City native and Marine Corps brat McArdle uses her more than 30 years in the U.S. diplomatic corps to bring Angela to life. Other characters equally vivid and engaging are Rahim, the Afghan translator who in many ways becomes the child Angela never had; Nilofar, a young, fearless law student who through her own work battling for Afghan women’s rights helps Angela find a new sense of purpose; and Mark Davies, a handsome British intelligence officer who helps Angela rediscover her spirit and her heart.
In the Dari language spoken in northern Afghanistan, the name Angela means “farishta” or “angel.” For many of the Afghan women and children in this novel, Angela becomes an unexpected angel. McArdle is also a real “farishta” for Afghanistan, as she demonstrates that even though the need for international military aid is coming to an end, the need for international human aid has just begun. Farishta is a fabulous debut novel, as readable as it is relevant.
Read an interview with Patricia McArdle about Farishta.
Murder and memory
The pre-publication hyperbole on S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep has easily matched that of any fiction debut in recent memory, with accolades from luminaries such as Dennis Lehane, Mo Hayder and Val McDermid. So what’s all the fuss about? The basic premise, that of an amnesia victim suffering from debilitating short-term memory loss, has been thoroughly mined in print (James Hilton’s Random Harvest, G.H. Ephron’s Amnesia) and cinema (50 First Dates, Memento). Where Watson diverges from the formula is in his exhaustive exploration of one woman’s spiral into paranoia. Does Christine have a happy marriage, or is it a total sham? Does she have a son, and if so, did he die in Iraq, or is that just a figment of her overworked imagination? And what’s up with her doctor, anyway? From early on, it is clear that her husband is not being entirely truthful with her, but to what end—Christine’s well-being or something darker? On the sly, Christine begins keeping a journal, documenting the inconsistencies in the stories she is told by those she thought she could trust, leading to a showdown of epic proportions.
So, what’s the verdict? Well, Before I Go to Sleep is unquestionably a suspenseful and gripping psychological thriller, relentlessly paced, but there are a couple of stumbling points that stretch taut the fabric of coincidence in the interest of furthering the plot. That said, the novel is a noteworthy debut indeed, and it’s not difficult to see why this former British NHS worker has caused such a stir in literary circles.
Read an interview with S.J. Watson about Before I Go to Sleep.
A very large tale
British journalist David Whitehouse has built his first novel on a crazy premise: A young man, flush with life and deeply in love, decides that pursuing adulthood in normal terms is a complete waste of time. Rather than succumb to the drudgery of being a grownup, this eccentric freethinker decides to return to his childhood bed and never get out again. To push the premise even further, Whitehouse imagines that, after 20 sedentary years, his disillusioned character has become the fattest man in the world.
Those with weak constitutions should be forewarned that the descriptions of this enormous man—the narrator’s older brother Mal—are truly disgusting. Mal is compared to a sausage stuffed into a too-small skin. After being trained as a butcher, our narrator unsentimentally imagines a professional dividing his brother’s flesh into fatty steaks. While Whitehouse’s merry revelry in the grotesque could be something of a turnoff, the story’s momentum keeps pages flipping.
The story is told in two parts. The first begins on day “Seven Thousand Four Hundred and Eighty Three” of Mal’s tenure in the sheets. He is clearly near death. The second storyline flashes backward and attempts to explain—or at least observe—Mal’s path from his tyrannical childhood (in which he stole center stage of every family scene) to his morbid adulthood (in which Mal continues to be, as Whitehouse puts it, the planet around which his family orbits). Into this mix enters Lou, a waiflike woman whom both brothers love.
Ultimately the story becomes a pleasure as we learn that the younger brother and the older brother may not be as different as they first appear. Mal, whose “rebellion” earns him a cult-like following, also emerges as an insightful and surprisingly daring character in his own right. While Whitehouse’s treatment of women, all of whom seemingly exist only to serve the men, might be criticized, the ideas that drive this story and the originality with which it is executed make Bed well worth reading.
Dark, delicious tale of obsession
Beauty, obsession and identity are at the heart of Brandi Lynn Ryder’s accomplished and darkly sensuous debut, In Malice, Quite Close. At once a murder mystery, a vivid exploration of the art world and a meditation on the secrets we keep, Ryder’s novel is unlike anything else you will read this summer.
The moment Tristan Mourault, a wealthy, charming 34-year-old French ex-pat in San Francisco, casts his eyes on Karen Miller, an alluring local 15-year-old with a troubled home life, he decides he must have her for his own. Tristan urges Karen to run away with him, offering her a life of promise and luxury; when Karen can’t imagine leaving her beloved little sister Mandy, Tristan makes that decision for her by staging her death and fleeing with his new “acquisition.”
Karen is born anew as Gisèle Mourault, on paper Tristan’s daughter, but in reality something entirely different. Settling into domestic life, they begin to play a sinister game of cat and mouse, manipulating and supporting each other in equal measure. Their unique relationship seems to satisfy them—albeit in very different ways—until Gisèle’s young daughter, Nicola, finds a collection of secret paintings, and the web of lies her mother and “Grand-père” Tristan have created begins to unravel. Then Gisèle turns up dead in her swimming pool, while a young woman arrives claiming that Gisèle just may be her long-lost sister.
In Malice, Quite Close is a triumph. Ryder’s writing is as gorgeous as the many works of art she describes, and her characters—especially the twisted Tristan and tortured Gisèle—seem to leap right off the page. The novel’s many mysteries unfold carefully and beautifully, and readers will be trying to connect the dots until the very last page.
Read an interview with Brandi Lynn Ryder about In Malice, Quite Close.
Longing for a lost love
Korean-American author Samuel Park grew up listening to his mother’s stories about her life in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, when the country teetered on the brink of modernity while remaining steeped in centuries of tradition. He sets his intriguing novel in this tumultuous period, introducing a fascinating character whose life is forever changed by one very important decision.
The year is 1960, and in Daegu, Soo-Ja Choi dreams of becoming South Korea’s first woman diplomat. Though she is accepted into the program, her wealthy and overprotective father refuses to let her go, wanting her to marry and start a family instead. Reluctantly, Soo-Ja agrees to marry Min, a suitor who has been relentlessly pursuing her. But two days before the wedding, a handsome acquaintance named Yul asks her to run away with him instead. Fearing that she will disappoint her family, Soo-Ja rejects his offer, but realizes after just one night in her new husband’s home what a grave mistake she has made. Divorce is unthinkable in the still male-dominated society, especially after Soo-Ja gives birth to a daughter who means everything to her, but not a day passes that she doesn’t think of Yul and wonder what might have been if she had married him instead.
Traversing the South Korean landscape, from the rural fishing village of Pusan to the bustling capital of Seoul, This Burns My Heart is truly a slice of history, capturing a country very much in transition. But more importantly, it is a love story so simple and universal that, in many ways, it could be set anywhere. With complex, sympathetic characters and vibrant, lyrical prose, Park reminds readers about loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, family and, above all, the enduring power of first love.
Read an interview with Samuel Park about This Burns My Heart.
Speaking with the angels
Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has built a following on the strength of his literary song lyrics, which tackle such subjects as the parallels between science and relationships, the difficulties of love in an apocalyptic age and the beauty of relying on people close to you. With his debut novel, Bright’s Passage, Ritter shows that his range extends well beyond the three-minute pop song. He takes full advantage of the near-limitless bounds of the novel in this post-World War I tale, drawing contrast between a stark landscape filled with people in war scenes and a lush countryside and the lonely man who roams it after the war.
After veteran Henry Bright delivers his son and watches his wife die in childbirth, he begins a journey across the Appalachian terrain of West Virginia. An angel who followed Henry home from war and now speaks through his horse instructs him to burn his house and leave before his neighbor can follow his tracks.
The reader gains insight into Henry’s life as chapters cut between his past in West Virginia, the war and his race from the neighbor and the burning house, which instigates a wildfire. It quickly becomes evident that Henry isn’t only recovering from seeing friends die in the Great War; he’s also facing family battles and an internal struggle. Ritter allows readers to draw their own conclusions about Henry’s heavenly interaction, and this psychologically engaging tale will keep readers thinking for days after they close the book.
Read an interview with Josh Ritter about Bright's Passage.
Courage and heartbreak on the lakeshore
A request from an old family friend lures Madeline Stone from her stale life as a Chicago waitress to Lake Superior’s coast. McAllaster, Michigan, is only 500 miles from home, but to Madeline, who just lost her adoptive mother, the landscape feels further from anything she’s experienced before: Icebergs bob and waves lash a town that time forgot.
As she cares for a sweet elderly woman—and butts heads with the woman’s stubborn sister—Madeline discovers the town hasn’t forgotten her. Nor has it forgotten the young, wild mother who abandoned her. Madeline learns bit by bit of her family’s connection to the land—and to the shuttered Hotel Leppinen, which she is sneakily using as a nighttime painting studio.
South of Superior is a story about home, what people are willing to fight for, the weight of friendships and continued ambition. Despite Madeline’s move to a one-stoplight town, she never stops dreaming: She wants to sell paintings, illustrate books and run a destination hotel. A romantic storyline takes a backseat to allow for Madeline’s self-actualization, and it’s a treat to read a book starring such a stirring female lead. Ellen Airgood, who has spent the last 19 years in the Upper Peninsula, knows small-town life and portrays its positive and negative aspects with affection and feeling. Readers will tear through this engrossing story.
A remarkable young heroine
The heroine of The Echo Chamber, Evie Steppman, has hearing so developed, she can even listen to the past. She recalls conversations taking place while her mother was pregnant with her and overhears voices coming from photographs of the Lagos marketplace of her childhood. Born and raised in Nigeria during the final years of British occupation, Evie moved with her father to Edinburgh and, four decades later, lives holed up in an attic surrounded by the scraps of a peripatetic life. As Evie’s hearing fades, she works diligently to compose her memoir, fearfully facing the prospect of a soundless world,
Like other fictional children who witnessed great political changes (think Oskar in The Tin Drum or Saleem in Midnight’s Children) Evie is well aware of the difference brought about by her keen hearing. Her extraordinary auditory powers made her feel like a freak but also a catalyst of the global changes occurring around her. Her memoir consists of stories from her own life, but also transcriptions of her mother’s journals, harrowing letters from childhood friends describing the massacres of the Nigerian Civil War, and the fairy tales her father told her before she was born. This gives the novel a crowded, lively feeling; it’s not until the reader reaches Damaris’ diary that we realize how much of her life Evie has spent alone.
Damaris is Evie’s lover—a flighty actress and hanger-on to a Bowie-like rocker. The diary documents the women’s courtship and follows the course of their love to the United States, where Damaris is following a tour and Evie becomes preoccupied with recording the ambient noise of American streets. Author Luke Williams asked colleague Natasha Soobramanien to write these entries, which make up two key chapters allowing the reader to see Evie from the outside and giving the novel some badly needed emotional resonance.
Williams, who is Scottish, blends interests in history and storytelling to create an impressive novel of ideas and sounds, from the brittle clatter of the expatriate cocktail party to the sonic emptiness of a lonely life. The air of melancholy that floats over this novel is mitigated by Williams’ elegant style and vivid imagination. The Echo Chamber is not an easy novel, but one in which the skillful fusion of reality and fantasy powerfully reverberates for the engaged reader.
In war, finding refuge
Originally published in the U.K. in 2009 to little fanfare, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison went on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize, drawing much-deserved attention to this haunting coming-of-age story.
Alison takes readers to London in 1939, with Hitler’s troops poised on the brink of invading Poland. In anticipation of an attack, thousands of British parents are sending their children out of the city, to safety in the countryside. Anna Sands, a precocious eight-year-old with a flair for poetry, is one of these children. She arrives on an estate run by childless couple Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton.The story unfolds from the points of view of four characters: Thomas and Elizabeth, whose lives have been marked by their inability to have children and Thomas’ crippling bout with polio; Anna, whose life is changed by her arrival there; and Roberta, Anna’s mother, who embraces her newfound independence in London.
Alison tactfully tackles the notion of loneliness—be it in a foreign setting or a familiar home—along with expertly describing complicated relationships that are fraught with passion. Whether it’s Anna discovering an affair not to be witnessed, or Anna’s mother relying on the comfort of another man, these tangibly real characters are ones that inspire both pity and awe. The Very Thought of You is not just a story of love but a story of loss, one whose voice will touch even the coldest of hearts.
Robots versus humanity
Our cars can parallel park themselves. Our vacuums can zoom independently around the carpet. Add a few advancements in artificial intelligence and the setting in Robopocalypse is not so different from today. That is what makes Daniel H. Wilson’s debut novel so jarring.
Robopocalypse begins at the end, several years after Zero Hour, the moment when all the robots in the world turned against humanity. The New War has been won and the robot behind it all—Archos—has been defeated. Readers meet Cormac Wallace, whose crew of guerrillas finds a solid black cube buried deep underground. Within the cube is a special file kept by Archos that includes security footage, recorded conversations and stored video, all documenting the humans Archos had considered “heroes.” As one of those heroes, Cormac takes it upon himself to write their stories. The result is a truly entertaining, gruesome and humbling novel, with each chapter memorializing the humans and robots that were most pivotal in the rise and fall of the New War. The seemingly unrelated heroes, scattered across the globe and described with an intensity that suggests that each is more important than the last, give shape to Robopocalypse as their minute rebellions come together for the singular cause of survival.
Wilson, despite his Ph.D. in robotics, allows nearly no time for jargon as the apocalyptic pacing burns through the story. The chapters feature children, an old Japanese man, soldiers in the Middle East and old-world warriors in Oklahoma, and each voice allows new humor and horror, instantly banning any chance for a moment’s rest. There’s a reason Steven Spielberg has a movie version of the novel in the works: Wilson’s debut is one of a kind.