On the eve of her wedding, a young woman wonders if she's ready to commit to her picture-perfect fiancé.
A lonely, overweight 20-something is working a dead-end job as an advice columnist when someone unexpected enters her life and shakes things up.
These may sound like stories you've read before. But this summer, two fearless debut novelists are pushing the boundaries, releasing female-centered stories that blend dark twists and searing social commentary.
Lily Wilder, the narrator of Eliza Kennedy's I Take You (Crown, May), is doubting her decision to marry—but not for the reasons you'd expect. Lily, a successful lawyer, isn't afraid that the ceremony won't be perfect, that she's not good enough for Will or that he'll run out on her: She's worried that marriage will cramp her not-exactly-monogamous lifestyle.
And Plum Kettle, the overweight protagonist of Sarai Walker's Dietland (HMH, June)? The person she meets who changes her life isn't a man, but a mysterious young woman who initiates the virtually housebound Plum (who is planning on having bariatric surgery) into a secret society of guerrilla fighters who are committing terrorist acts against the patriarchy. (No surprise, The Sun's page 3 is among the targets.)
Both Lily and Plum are heroines who lie outside the social norms. Lily loves her fiancé, Will, but she also loves sex—lots of it. She isn't sure if she can change that about herself, or if she even wants to, even though by accepting his proposal she's signed on to try.
Likewise, Plum is not conventionally beautiful–and maybe not even unconventionally beautiful, although it's hard to tell since Plum is only ever described through her own very critical eyes. All her life, Plum has defined herself by her weight, spending years on thankless diets waiting for her skinny self—whom she calls Alicia—to emerge so she can finally start living.
Still, it's not entirely unusual for stories to start out with women who don't conform to the norms. After all, that's why their lives aren't perfect, right? As the pages turn, you're waiting for the moment when Lily and Plum transform, become what society expects—which makes you realize just how well-trodden the tropes of women's fiction can be. But as Dietland and I Take You approach their very different but equally satisfying conclusions, it becomes clear that this isn't the point. Plum and Lily aren't the ones who need to change—the world is.
These two daring debuts introduce authors who have something to say.
A young woman tries to reconcile her childhood in wartorn Croatia with her comfortable American college life in Sara Nović's smart and insightful debut, which will please fans of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena or the essays of Aleksander Hemon. Ana is just 10 years old when Croatia declares independence from Yugoslavia, and at first war feels like a game. But when her baby sister becomes ill, her parents are forced into a risky decision that changes everything. The novel cuts between Zagreb in 1991 and New York City in 2001, as Ana tries to reconcile her past with her present.
Nović ably conveys Ana's plight, torn between two cultures and unable to feel at home in either one. Ana struggles to explain her history to well-meaning Americans who inquire about it. Eventually, she stops trying.
Their musings about how and why people stayed in a country under such terrible conditions were what I hated most. I knew it was ignorance, not insight, that prompted these questions. They asked because they hadn’t smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies; they couldn’t fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbor all the feelings of home.
What are you reading this week?
Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
The fast-paced world of romance publishing is always offering up great new authors to discover. As part of our #FirstFictionMonth coverage, we're spotlighting three new voices who are each debuting in their own way this year.
Jennifer Ryan will be making her print debut with At Wolf Ranch (on sale February 24, 2015), the first in her thrilling romantic suspense series, Montana Men. The novel focuses on Ella Wolf as she flees to her family’s ranch, certain that the man who murdered her sister is now after her. Luckily for Ella, a ruggedly handsome cowboy is bent on protecting her from the killer.
Despite finding eBook success with her best-selling The Hunted and The McBrides series, Ryan is excited to finally have a novel in bookstores, admitting during our discussion at RWA that she's “really more of a print person.” And her path to print publication is the stuff of writers' dreams. While attending a panel discussion during a previous RWA convention, Avon editor Lucia Macro mentioned that she would love to see more romantic suspense novels. Taking the cue, Ryan sent Macro her manuscript, and a short three weeks later, Avon bought her series. It's no surprise, really; Ryan is adept at writing those gripping scenes that leave you flipping pages till the end.
Ryan’s romance-writing career took off with a bit of a happy shock: the discovery that she was pregnant with third child. “I was reading all the time—I read 10 books a week while my kids were growing up!” she says of her time as a stay-at-home mom with her first two children. But when they grew older, she decided it was time to go back to work as a computer programmer. That plan quickly changed when she discovered that she was pregnant again with her daughter. With another baby on the way, she decided that writing romance novels from home just made sense.
So what inspired her to base her series on the cowboys of Big Sky country? “When I was younger, I had a friend in California with a small ranch and horses. I would spend my weekends riding horses with her, and I just thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world," she explains. "I grew up daydreaming about cowboys, because who wouldn’t? I remember thinking, there’s got to be a cowboy our there for me—And I ended up marrying a military man!" Ryan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children, and can usually be found immersed in a world of books.
We chatted with debut author Lillian Marek over email about her first novel, the Victorian romance Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures (on sale November 4). This novel answers the call for romance in exotic locales, since its heroine Lady Elinor and a distractingly handsome family friend find love while exploring Italy and the ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization. Marek writes with humor, historical knowledge and just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Writing historical romance was an easy choice for Marek. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else—you could call it a compulsion. For a number of years, I got my writing fix, so to speak, as a journalist, but it’s much more fun writing fiction,” she says. Her focus on romance was inspired by a friend’s suggestion to pick up Loretta Chase’s romance novel Mr. Impossible. “I absolutely adored it,” she says. “I started devouring romance novels, especially historical ones, and had a glorious time. Then I thought it would be fun to write them, so I did.” As simple as that!
Getting published was a bit more complex than her decision to write, but after winning a few romance-writing contests, Marek felt confident enough to pitch her book to Sourcebooks. Not only did Sourcebooks buy Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures, they bought the rest of the proposed series as well. "I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic," she says. Marek lives near Long Island Sound with her husband, where she enjoys taking long walks along the coast. We're excited to see where the next intrepid installment in Marek's Victorian Adventurers series takes us!
Rhonda Helms is venturing into the world of New Adult print with her love- and music-inspired novel, Scratch (on sale September 30). Scratch is a departure from her usual romantic young adult novels, which are “frothy and fun,” she says during our conversation at the hotel Starbucks. New Adult is an up-and-coming genre, marketed towards young women in their early 20s—a grown-up YA reader, if you will. New Adult focuses on characters finding themselves and struggling with choices and consequences, from first jobs to first loves, as they explore life after high school. “It’s got that young adult voice [first person], but with more adult situations. I like the fact that you can write these characters that are a little bit older, and there’s lots of high emotion,” Helms explains. Helms has a knack for writing convincing dialogue between her young characters, perhaps inspired by conversations with her 18-year-old daughter!
In Scratch, college senior Casey attempts to keep memories of an unpleasant past at bay by losing herself in her gigs as a DJ. She tends to keep others at a distance, but when a fellow student takes an interest in her, she wonders if letting him in might be worth the risk. Helms knew music would be a big part of the book, and explains, "Music is really important to me. I was a DJ too for a while—It was awesome!" Scratch even includes a track list which “reflects stuff that would be on Casey’s personal playlist or music that she would play in the club,” Helms says. Here's a sample track from the list.
Along with her interest in music, Helms has always loved romance novels. “I started reading romance when I was a kid,” Helms says. “I would hide in my mom’s bathroom and read her Harlequins!” Growing up with those Harlequins, she knew she wanted to write. However, she says, “The first book I wrote, I had no idea what I was doing. I just sort of vomited out five chapters, and then didn’t know what to do next. . . It took me a year, but after that first book, I learned my process. But that first book was rough!” Seven books later, it looks like she’s gotten the hang of it.
Helms lives in Cleveland with her family, where you may find her enjoying time with her pets, reading or perhaps sampling her favorite cheeses. “A good aged Gouda is divine, and Asiago cheese is exquisite,” she says. Romance with a side of cheese: what more could you want?
Jessie Burton pairs lavish descriptions of life in 17th-century Amsterdam with a clever touch of intrigue in her debut historical novel, The Miniaturist.
Eighteen-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman is the shy new bride of an enigmatic and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, but too often she finds herself alone in her new, unfriendly household.
Johannes tries to comfort Nella with the gift of a tiny cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own. But when Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish it, his cryptic clues lead her to uncover long-hidden secrets about the Brandt family.
Get the in-depth scoop from Burton herself in the video below:
The Miniaturist is out today! Will you be picking up a copy?
Magic and reality combine in award-winning short-story writer Josh Weil's first novel, The Great Glass Sea. Set in an alternate present-day Russia where a city is kept under the titular glass greenhouse in a world of perpetual daylight in order to maximize crop production, it follows twin brothers Yarik and Dima. Once inseparable, the brothers are now on opposite sides of a controversy: Yarik is working to support the government that placed the citizens of Petroplavilsk under the sea, while Dima dreams of a return to their childhood farm and the freedom of a day where the sun rises and sets. When circumstances force the brothers even further apart, they must decide just how much family means.
Click here to read our full review.
Boston writer and visual artist Annie Weatherwax's perceptive debut, All We Had (Scribner) is the story of an unusual mother-daughter duo attempting to find a place to belong. At just 13 years old, Ruthie convinces her mother, Rita, to leave her no-good boyfriend and start a new life. The pair hits the road, cruising through small-town America—a vista of diners, local businesses and memorable characters that Weatherwax describes with flair.
In a guest blog post, Weatherwax explores the appeal of the road novel, explaining what the pressure-cooker of car travel brings out in her characters.
At the beginning of my debut novel, All We Had, my protagonist, Ruthie, and her mother, Rita, spend a lot of time in their used Ford Escort. The car is central to their lives. It’s the only thing they own, and when they have no other choice, it doubles as their home.
The car is a built-in pressure cooker. With nothing to distract them their highs and lows become heightened and intensify.
At first they feel invincible. Speeding along the freeway, with the windows down and the music blaring, they are full of almost exalted hope as they escape their California and head east towards Boston to what they are certain is the promise land.
But car rides can become endlessly boring and boredom can quickly lead to irritability. “[A]ll the things my mother usually did—tapping the steering wheel with her thumbs when she liked a song, biting her bottom lip when she wasn’t smoking—suddenly annoyed me,” Ruthie says.
If you leave characters in a car long enough there is bound to be drama. When emotions escalate there is no way to avoid them. Characters are restricted in their seats. When arguments are over they must sit with their feelings and negotiate the psychic space between them and, in a speeding car, there is a limit to the actions they can take.
At one point after a particularly bad fight, Ruthie rummages through the glove compartment and when she finds gum shoves the whole pack into her mouth. One piece after another, she crumples up the empty wrappers, throws them on the floor then abruptly hawks the entire wad of gum out. Her mother retaliates by blatantly ignoring her.
The lack of distraction in the confines of a car lends itself to the exploration of daydreams. Could there be a better vehicle (pardon the pun) for a writer?
The vantage point from inside a car is unique. The whoosh and rhythm of sounds has a particular quality. The skyline looks different and the fragmented glimpses from rearview and side mirrors can be astonishingly beautiful. In fiction a car can do many things. Most obviously it can reveal status and move characters from point A to point B.
For this writer, it’s the confinement of a car that exhilarates me. Limitation takes away choice but it also relieves the paralysis of choice. Creativity is often fostered by such constraints. Restrictions and obstacles can spark connections between things that are not necessarily obvious. The true nature of a human being can reveal itself when characters make decisions under pressure and a car can provide that pressure.
A car ride implies that the desired time and place resides at some point in the future. But the destination is often not what’s important; it’s what happens on the journey that can truly move a story forward.
For more on Annie Weatherwax and All We Had, visit her website.
Author photo by Lou Goodman
This year's best crime fiction debuts kept us entertained and on the edges of our seats as if they were authored by seasoned pros.
We had no idea how much we craved a new curmudeonly private detective and his girl Friday until Sidney Grice and March Middleton entered the scene via British author Kasasian's new series. After 21-year-old March's father dies, she moves in with the celebrated and socially inept Grice. March is outspoken and whipsmart—an unlikely even match to Grice. Together they investigate the murder of a young woman, and the result is an enjoyable mystery that relishes the darker elements of Victorian London, a classic setting that can't keep its dirty little secrets from this unlikely sleuthing team. Read our review.
The Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker
Washington Post staffer Tucker, author of memoir Love in the Driest Season, drew on his own experiences as a reporter to craft an edgy and tense thriller set in 1990s Washington, D.C. When a politically connected judge's daughter turns up dead, three young black men are arrested. This seems a bit suspicious to world-weary reporter Sully Carter, who sees a connection between the girl's murder and several other cold cases. Tucker's debut stands out for its ingenious, multilayered plotting, its juicy depiction of shady journalism and its thoughtful exploration of questions of race and class. Above all, Tucker's dialogue is in a league of its own. Our Whodunit columnist called it "textured and nuanced," and compared it to the work of Elmore Leonard, James Crumley and George Pelecanos. Read our review.
Northeastern Pennsylvania author Bouman perfectly captures the dark and dilapidated milieu of rural PA in his debut thriller, bringing to life all the sadness and—somehow—good humor that permeate a region poisoned by poverty and drug use. Things start to change when corporations begin buying up all the land for fracking and gas drilling, which introduces some wealth to the region as well as a new set of problems. Meanwhile Officer Henry Farrell, already quite busy struggling with his own demons, is trying to track down the killer of an unknown victim. Then Henry's deputy is found dead, and tension in this already-suspicious community begins to rise. It's a sad story, but Bouman's storytelling is so seamless and his prose so poetic, we don't mind a little heartbreak. Read our review.
Ten years after she was convicted of her mother's murder, Janie Jenkins has been released from prison on a technicality. But Janie didn't kill her mother, at least she doesn't think so. She was, however, found covered in her mother's blood, and the two didn't exactly get along. Now a notorious criminal, Janie sets out to prove her innocence, armed with a false identity and the smallest of leads. It's a great thriller based on plot alone, but Little's voice is what makes this one so special. It's been called stylish, sassy and assured; our reviewer called it "one of the cheekiest voices in recent memory." Whatever you call it, it's one of a kind, and we can't wait to see more of it. Read our review.
A one-night stand resulted in Mia Dennett's kidnapping, but her abductor inexplicably takes her to a remote cabin in the woods rather than turn her over to the guy in charge. After Mia returns home, she cannot seem to recall all the details of her experience. Kubica's intricately plotted debut alternates between past and present—before and after Mia's abduction—and multiple perspectives: Mia’s mother, Eve; Mia's abductor, Colin; and Gabe, the detective on the case. This is a puzzler on par with Gone Girl, so expect to be surprised. Read our review and a Q&A with Kubica.
The power of TaraShea Nesbit's first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, builds slowly and catches the reader by surprise. Told in a chorus of women's voices, the book provides a powerful portrait of life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the years of the fateful Manhattan Project. Clothed in secrecy, the project's aim was unknown to even many of the men who worked on it—and their long-suffering wives, torn from homes across the country and brought to this desolate area, knew even less.
As Nesbit writes,
“What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab? We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered types of code breaking.”
A time capsule in book form, this masterful debut recreates a lost world. Check out our full review here.
Usually, the magic happens on Christmas Eve. But not in Marie-Helene Bertino's debut novel, 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, in which the eve of Christmas Eve proves to be a pivotal night for almost-10-years-old Madeleine Altimari. Her goal is to become a jazz star, and she sets out to find the infamous club The Cat's Pajamas and make her debut. Our reviewer writes: "Bertino’s prose easily dips in and out of the lives of her characters as she weaves them together, including insight into secondary figures at each turn. With vivid description and great character development, Bertino brings Philadelphia and its inhabitants to life in an unforgettable tale." (Read the full review here).
We were curious about the books Bertino has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
I confess: I am a slow-ish, picky reader. I would rather read Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters for the hundredth time than just about anything—I’m that kind of bird. Maybe it’s because I find it difficult to turn my editor’s mind off—I am always twisting and turning words as I’m reading them. Those books that are able to turn my mind off secure my lifelong devotion. Here are three of them.
A book for dreamers and originals:
By Deb Olin Unferth
I can’t remember what fortuitous circumstance led Deb Olin Unferth’s work into my path, but the very first time I read it, I was gobsmacked. She can be wildly specific, totally universal and make a miraculous reversal, all in one line. In the story called “Deb Olin Unferth,” she places a fingertip on every person’s fear (every writer, at least), and presses. In “La Pena,” the unraveling of a couple’s relationship is chronicled in a shatteringly beautiful anecdote. Deb has lines that hold the whole world in them. But, she also has lines like:
He held my hand and we were brave.
I’ve read and taught this collection many times, but it still always manages to surprise me.
I’ve owned this book for several years but it wasn’t until a recent vacation that I chucked it into my suitcase thinking I’d give it a try. The first voice in the book, main character Leopold Gurtsky, frustrated me, charmed me, and held me rapt. By the time I met the second main character, Alma, I knew I was involved with something very special. Kraus reveals decades of pain while leaving room for life’s lightness. Even the physical pages feel important. The History of Love contains some brilliant musings on devotion and aging, and contains an anecdote about a telephone made out of two cans and string that you could read at your wedding. No matter how skillful the body of a book, its overall success is tied up in the way it lands. The last few pages don’t just satisfy, they soar.
A book for all time:
The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince is a baffling and perfect book. It works on the line level, the story level, the character level, the level of insight, and the last level that has no name but is the most essential, if you will—the quality Hemingway referred to as “what butterflies have on their wings.” It also has the #1 dedication ever written. I still struggle with the “lesson” the fox teaches the pint-sized main character, that if you “tame” something, you make it special. Every time I read the book I am newly distressed by that word, “tame.” Yet, at the heart of The Little Prince is an author who understood something about human beings that goes unnoticed by most. Saint Exupery’s exactness makes my exact mind delight. He tried many different manifestations of its most famous line. Can you imagine how the meaning of the book would have changed if he had gone with one of the following?
What can be seen does not matter.
What is important is always somewhere else.
What is important is always invisible.
Both Antoine de Saint-Exupery and another of my favorite writers, Roald Dahl, were pilots. In a biography filmed about the latter, a researcher wondered if the cramped space of a cockpit counter-intuitively sparked an expansiveness of imagination. Dahl famously wrote in a small house on his property, on a wooden lap tray that constricted movement, until he died. I think about this sometimes when I am in my sacred, cramped apartment.
Do any of Bertino's books pique your interest?
(Author photo by Ted Dodson)