Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The myth of the rugged outlaw and the Wild West gets turned on its head in Courtney Collins' inventive debut, The Untold. It is based on the real-life story of Australian female outlaw Jessie Hickman, but making a woman the hero of a Western isn't the only risk Collins takes here: She also chooses to make the narrator of her story a dead baby, born to and killed by Jessie in a desperate act to preserve her own survival.
Collins says she's always been drawn to "alternative histories—histories told by aboriginals, by migrants, by women. . . . Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic school, and my education about these types of people was extremely moderate.” Those willing to veer onto the path not typically taken will thrill to this lyrical debut.
Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
Soho, $25, ISBN 9781616954529
on sale September 9, 2014
Coming of age in Greenwich Village in the 1970s isn't easy for teenaged Rainey Royal. Her mother has left her and her father alone in their tumbledown brownstone, and he's too busy trying to build a jazz career to notice his best friend and housemate, Gordy, making moves on Rainey. In these 14 linked short stories, O. Henry Award winner Dylan Landis chronicles Rainey's journey from teen to woman, focusing on the strange power of teen girls—and its limits.
"You come in my room while I'm sleeping?" From the way he looks at her, she knows they both know that she knows. She waits for him to laugh at her. "Don't you dare laugh," she says.
He doesn't laugh. "You have no right," she says. She pulls back her hand and slaps him on the face, to see if it will relieve her of the horrible knowing feeling. It does, a little, though her hand must be burning at least as much as his cheek. His skin turns bright red. She wonders if he is really albino or just incredibly pale. He makes no move to slap her back.
"You sent me signals," says Gordy. "You've sent me signals your entire life."
Signals? She sends signals to everyone, all the time, even if the signals are submerged, like telexes in cables on the ocean floor. It's what she does. It doesn't seem to be something a person can learn; Leah is hopeless at it.
Gordy raises his elbows to block her raised hand. "You never said no." He backs up toward his bedroom door.
Two flights down, the doorbell rasps. "You weren't listening," says Rainey, and shoulders past him and downstairs.
What are you reading this week?
Publishers are always on the lookout for the next big thing, which means plenty of choice for fans of new voices. After highlighting four outstanding August debuts in our print issue, it's time to take a look back at the year as a whole. Here are our 12 most notable first novels of the year (so far!).
About the book: A young widow who's always lived in the shadow of her famous husband must take a new tack on life after his unexpected and sudden death. This story of self-discovery is fun, relatable and poignant.
About the author: Radziwill is a star on "The Real Housewives of New York," who honed her writing chops with a best-selling memoir, What Remains, which explores her own widowhood.
Read more: Check out the review from our February issue.
About the book: A family of four leaves their home in Alabama to reach the California coast by the time the Rapture arrives. Teenaged Jess and her older sister, Elise, have plenty of earthly problems to deal with along the way—and they're not as sure as their parents that the end is near.
About the author: Miller, who grew up in Mississippi, is currently the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. She published a short story collection, Big World, in 2009.
About the book: Told in the voices of five very different childhood friends, Butler's debut is a paean to small-town Midwestern life and an exploration of how friendships can change over time. Bonus: One of the characters just might be kinda-sorta based on a famous Wisconsin musician who went to high school with Butler.
About the author: A Wisconsin native, Butler attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lived in the Twin Cities before moving back home to Fall Creek with his wife, an attorney, and their two children.
Read more: Check out the interview from our March issue.
About the book: Set in a small town in the Ozarks, McHugh's debut follows a young girl whose friend's disappearance stirs up questions—and secrets—relating to her own missing mother.
About the author: McHugh drew inspiration from her own experience of moving with her family to the Ozarks as a teen—where she first discovered that small-town life didn't necessarily mean an idyllic life—as well as from the real-life disappearance of a Missouri teen.
About the book: The story begins four years after then-11-year-old Justin Campbell was kidnapped—on the day that his father, Eric, receives a phone call saying Justin is coming home. Though they're overjoyed, the Campbells soon discover that putting their family back together might be just as painful as having it ripped apart.
About the author: Johnston is the current Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, and he was one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" in 2005.
Read more: Check out the review from our May issue.
About the book: Maud is worried about her best friend, Elizabeth, whom she hasn't seen in what feels like ages. But her daughter, and Elizabeth's son, blame Maud's worry on her increasing dementia. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Elizabeth's disappearance is bringing long-buried memories to the surface of Maud's now-cloudy mind, and the reader is completely involved in this double mystery.
About the author: Healey not only writes books—she knows how to bind them, having completed a book-binding degree in London before getting her MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
Read more: Check out the review from our June issue.
About the book: A forgotten American life takes center stage in this compelling debut, which tells the story of Laura Bridgman, a deaf, blind and mute woman who was born in the early 1800s. She was the first person to learn to communicate by finger-spell, a language that was later taught to Helen Keller.
About the author: Elkins is a screenwriter, playwright and essayist who has lived in cities around the globe. She has degrees from Duke, Boston University and Florida State.
About the book: This homage to all things Gothic is the rare book that both feels completely grounded in its period setting and completely relevant to our modern times—and puts a creative twist on the somewhat tired vampire trend.
About the author: British author Owen is currently completing her doctorate in English Literature at Durham University.
About the book: After the apocalypse, a young couple finds all the society they need in each other—until Frida realizes she's pregnant. Their search for civilization leads them to a mysterious settlement that may or may not provide the sanctuary they seek.
About the author: A graduate of Oberlin and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Lepucki has worked as a staff writer for The Millions.
Read more: Check out the review from our July issue.
About the book: Decades of colorful Caribbean history come to life in this engaging first novel, which follows the fortunes of one family after their arrival in the Virgin Islands and includes a touch of magic.
About the author: Yanique is a native of the Virgin Islands and now lives with her family in Brooklyn. She has received a Fulbright scholarship for her writing.
About the book: Research scientist David Leveraux starts to wonder whether the artificial sweetener he's created in his lab—and unleashed on the world—has a dark side.
About the author: Born in Germany to a Norwegian mother and Texan father, Clark has lived in five states and five countries. He is the author of a short story collection, Vladimir's Mustache, and currently teaches writing at Augsburg College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Read more: Check out the review from our August issue.
About the book: Alma thinks she has left her small-town past behind her, but when her troubled younger sister is found dead on the side of the road, she is pulled back to Montana to discover the truth—and care for her orphaned young niece.
About the author: Like her main character, La Seur is a lawyer who left her home state of Montana to practice in the big city.
Agree? Disagree? let us know in the comments!
Related in BookPage: Check out our 2013 list of noteworthy debuts.
Fantasy fans, rejoice: There's a new series in town. Bay Area writer Erika Johansen has made an amibtious debut with Queen of the Tearling, the first in a planned series starring a young princess, Kelsea Glynn, who is attempting to regain her rightful throne from a pretender who wants her dead. Our reviewer writes:
In addition to the host of immediate threats, Johansen sets up a few mysteries that will be resolved over the course of her planned series. Most are common fantasy tropes—who is Kelsea’s father? What exactly is the story of the evil queen?—but Johansen’s world also contains a bigger mystery of setting: When and where, exactly, is the present action taking place? While it feels relatively medieval, there are numerous references to a Crossing, and everything Pre-Crossing sounds like the real world (our world). This suggests the kingdoms of Tear and Mortmesne may have more of a science fiction/post-apocalyptic tinge than is immediately apparent.
Ruth Reichl, the former NYT restaurant reviewer, final editor of Gourmet magazine and author of several best-selling memoirs, will be turning to fiction with her next book. Random House will publish Delicious! in May 2014, "a novel of sisters, family ties, and a young woman who must let go of the past to embrace her own gifts." The aforementioned heroine is Billie Breslin, who has moved to New York City to take a job at the food magazine Delicious!. But after Delicious! is abruptly shuttered, Billie discovers of WWII-era letters between a 12-year-old girl and famous chef and cookbook writer James Beard—a correspondence that ends up changing her own life. Readers can count on evocative descriptions of NYC and an authentic depiction of the foodie magazine scene—and yes, even a recipe for Billie's famous gingerbread. Related in BookPage: Read an interview with Ruth Reichl and other coverage of her previous books.
The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown • $26 • ISBN 9780316228114
On sale January 14, 2014
Rachel Urquhart's debut novel takes place in a Shaker community in the 1840s—the place where 15-year-old Polly and her younger brother flee after burning her house down to conceal the murder of her abusive father. But she finds that safety comes at something of a price in this harsh and restrictive community.
"Why must I pretend my brother is not my brother?" she asked. She no longer felt afraid of this stranger. Nothing moved her anymore, not love, not worry, not even sadness. She had become as hard and dry as a winter seed. "Mama said she had business to attend to," Polly said, not intending to speak her doubts out loud. "Perhaps. And yet, how could she have left us in a place where there can be no love?"
The girl let out a sigh. "There is love here, you will see. Brother for brother, sister for sister. But flesh bonds are forged in the fires of carnal sin. Your Ben, like you, was born of a filthy act. Here, that filth will be lifted. You shall see for yourself, if you are willing to renounce your blood ties and confess. Should you refuse, then you do not belong among us."
2013 is winding down, and it's time to celebrate the year in books! With so many notable titles published this year, picking our top 50 was a real challenge. The full list will debut for the first time in our December issue, but for now, check out #26-50.
26. The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson
27. Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
28. Schroder by Amity Gaige
29. The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
30. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
31. The Book of Ages by Jill Lepore
32. Flora by Gail Godwin
33. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
34. Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
35. At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
36. Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
37. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
38. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
39. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
40. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
41. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
42. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
43. The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
44. Ecstatic Nation by Brenda Wineapple
45. Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
46. The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler
47. Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
48. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
49. Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
50. Gulp by Mary Roach
Starting this week, our editors will be posting about some of their favorites from the list, so there’s plenty more “Best of” coverage to look forward to. Any guesses about who's #1? What was your favorite book of 2013?
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Amy & Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout. Strout went on to win the Pulitzer Prize with her third book, Olive Kitteridge, but her debut, a sensitive story about mothers and daughters, marked her as an author to watch. Isabelle thinks she knows everything about her daughter, Amy, but when she discovers that Amy has been having an affair with her math teacher, their relationship is tested.
Amy's deceit makes Isabelle, a single mother, question her own parenting skills, remembering her own lies that began when she first moved to Shirley Falls when Amy was a baby. Horrified by her daughter's actions, Isabelle commits an act that they later regret, igniting the hostile silence throughout the summer. Unsure how to make amends, Amy and Isabelle begin the arduous process of learning to see each other as adults and recognizing their respective limits. . . . In this quiet but exhilarating novel, the reader becomes involved in the life of Shirley Falls, able to peer through everyone's roofs at night and empathize with their struggles.
Read the full review from our January 1999 issue here.