As part of our Best Books of 2013 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
The brilliance of Adelle Waldman’s debut novel is subtle, not flashy. You might think that a voyeuristic peek into the mind of a 30-something male writer as he navigates the Brooklyn literary and dating scenes would be salacious or titillating, as the “affairs” of the title suggests. Not so. Waldman’s nonjudgmental, unsentimental narrative allows readers to determine for themselves whether Nate is sincere (if oblivious at times) or a fickle cad—or a mixture of both.
The first in an anticipated seven book series, The Bone Season is a fast-paced, suspenseful novel set in a divergent future where the struggles of one teen could affect the survival of her world.
It's 2059, and the major British cities are under the control of the Scion. Paige Mahoney works in Scion London, and because she is a clairvoyant, also known as a voyeur, her every breath is an act of treason. Paige is captured and imprisoned by an otherworldly race which abuses the power of voyeurs for their army. In a world unlike our own, Paige will have to learn to control her powers in order to escape.
Be sure to read our full review here and check out the book trailer below from Bloomsbury.
Will you be reading The Bone Season?
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385536776
On sale August 13, 2013
Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees is one of our August issue's best debut novels of the year, perfect for fans of Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. Our reviewer was practically beside herself with praise, saying, "Novels like these are reminders not only of why we read, but also of just how vital and downright magical storytelling can be."
But if I'm totally honest, I picked this one up because I wanted to read about people eating magical turtles.
And there are definitely people eating turtles here, but fortunately for me, all the other stuff is true, too. Norton Perina, a scientist who has recently fallen from grace, recounts in these fictional memoirs an extraordinary journey into a remote Micronesian island where the meat of a turtle called the opa'ivu'eke may hold the key to eternal youth—but it comes with a terrible price.
The vivid and grotesque descriptions of setting, the engrossing science and the incredible imagination of this story are all enough to earn this book a spot among the best debuts of the year. What makes it one of the best books of the year, period, is its maturity in characterization. To take a man who has lost everything, who has been cast out from society and who may incite disgust in the reader, and allow him to represent himself in his own words defines Yanagihara as a uniquely talented storyteller. It takes compassion to be without judgment.
Check out our Q&A with Yanagihara and read her guest post about the true story behind her debut novel. Then enjoy this excerpt from The People in the Trees:
Looking back on it now, of course, I realize how extraordinary those first few days were, before I became immune to the awes of the jungle and even grew to despise them. One day—it must have been our third or fourth—I was trudging uphill as usual, looking around me, listening to the conversations of birds and animals and insects, feeling the floor beneath me gently buckling and heaving with unseen layers of worms and beetles as I placed my feet upon them; it could feel like treading on the wet innards of a large dozing beast. And then there was for a moment Uva at my side—he normally walked far ahead of me, in a pack with Fa'a and Tu, darting forward and back to assure Tallent that all was safe—holding his hand out before him, signaling me to stop. Then, quickly and gracefully, he sprang toward a nearby tree, indistinguishable from all others, thick and dark and branchless, and scrabbled up it quickly, turning his wide feet inward to cup its thorny bark. When he was about ten feet or so up, he looked down at me and held out his hand again, palm down—wait. I nodded. And then he continued to climb, vanishing into the canopy of the forest.
When he came down, he was slower, and clutching something in his hand. He leapt down the last five feet or so and came over to me, uncurling his fingers. In his palm was something trembling and silky and the bright, delicious pale gold of apples; in the gloom of the jungle it looked like light itself. Uva nudged the thing with a finger and it turned over, and I could see it was a monkey of some sort, though no monkey I had ever seen before; it was only a few inches larger than one of the mice I had once been tasked with killing, and its face was a wrinkled black heart, its features pinched together but its eyes large and as blankly blue as a blind kitten's. It had tiny, perfectly formed hands, one of which was gripping its tail, which it had wrapped around itself and which was flamboyantly furred, its hair hanging like a fringe.
"Vuaka," said Uva, pointing at the creature.
"Vuaka," I repeated, and reached out to touch it. Under its fur I could feel its heart beating, so fast it was almost a purr.
"Vuaka," said Uva again, and then made as if to eat it, solemnly patting his stomach.
The People in the Trees is one of my favorite debuts of the year, but First Fiction Month has highlighted plenty of other great debuts!
In his debut novel, Kevin Maher offers a story of challenges faced head-on with humor and the strength of family. The Fields depicts the struggles of 14-year-old Jim Finnegan as he navigates family, friends and girls while growing up in Dublin during the 1980s. Coming across situations he never imagined, Jim looks to his family for solutions as he faces the realities of becoming a man.
Dublin native Kevin Maher brings truth to his characters as Jim travels from Dublin to London in search of redemption. To learn more about Kevin Maher and his writing of The Fields, watch the book trailer below from Hachette Book Group and be sure to read our full review.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading The Fields?
Every author finds their calling—and their material—differently. Sarah Bruni, whose first novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, was published just last month, shares her path to publication in a guest blog post. Perhaps it's not surprising that such a fresh and unusual story—which blends the Spider-Man mythology with the story of two unconventional loners—didn't present itself in a normal way!
I didn’t set out to write a novel at all. If I had I known from the start that’s what I was doing, I probably would have approached the task very differently. I began writing a collection of short stories set in Chicago in 2006. In one of them, a lonely young woman working in an Iowa gas station, eager for escape, allowed herself to be kidnapped by a gun-wielding taxi driver who called himself Peter Parker. Making a pact to rob her gas station and drive to Chicago in his stolen taxi, these two outcasts were my collection’s only characters who behaved so oddly: borrowing identities from comic books, acting out on the fringes of society. I didn’t know what to make of them; neither did my readers.
"Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience."
The thing that’s struck me most about the novelist’s task this first time through is the incredible sense of commitment that it requires to spend so much time in a single created world. Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience. It was sometimes a challenge to stay committed to these characters I had first encountered nearly seven years ago, to continue to find new ways to move with them through their experiences. But being a long and imperfect form, a novel allows opportunities for digression and experimentation that are different from those available in shorter fiction. I was surprised by how much my characters were able to change and develop with me as a writer, how their behaviors shifted along with my interests—that’s in some way what made me stick with them for so long.
Spanning world wars and two continents, Letters from Skye introduces Elspeth Dunn, a published poet who receives her first letter of fan mail from an American student named Davey. During the resulting correspondence, love slowly builds, long-distance love during WWI is not easy. Thirty years later, Elspeth disappears after a nightly air raid during WWII, and the newly discovered letters become her daughter’s only clue to finding her.
As summer quickly comes to an end, Jessica Brockmole's beautiful debut novel is a perfect way to slow down and enjoy the final days of summer. Be sure to read the full review of Letters from Skye and check out the book trailer below from Random House.
Will you be spending your last days of summer slowing down with Letters from Skye?
Throughout her murder trial, Noa P. Singleton never spoke a single word in her own defense. Ten years later, Noa is six months away from her execution when she is visited by her victim's mother, who offers to change Noa's sentence to life in prison in exchange for only one thing, but that is the one thing that Noa will never do: tell her story.
In her debut novel, Elizabeth Silver has created an emotionally striking story that will cause readers to reflect on their own decisions. An engrossing rumination on the search for truth, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton will leave readers looking deep within at their own truths and deceptions.
For more about the literary psychological thriller, check out our full review and watch the book trailer below from Headline Books.
See what else is going on during Private Eye July!
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
by Adelle Waldman
Holt • $25 • ISBN 9780805097450
on sale July 16
As a veteran of the rough-and-tumble, often-perplexing NYC dating scene, I was immensely curious to crack open The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the debut novel by Adelle Waldman. A peek into the mind—the motivations, the rationalizations, the insecurities—of a 30-something writer living in Brooklyn? Yes, please!
Nathaniel ("Nate") Piven is on the cusp of literary stardom. A freelance writer who has his pick of magazine assignments, he has just sold his first book to a major publisher for a six-figure advance. He also has his pick of the ladies. The book jacket promises "a plunge into the psyche of a modern man—who thinks himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety; who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down." Complexly layered characters like Nate are few and far between—he elicits sympathy one moment, supreme frustration the next, which just makes him all the more believable. Waldman's keen, effortless prose adds to the difficulty of putting the book down once you've started.
Here's a brief excerpt from early on in the book. Nate's at a dinner party being thrown by his ex-girlfriend/now-friend, Elisa:
While he ate his chicken cacciatore—which, as it happened, was quite good—Nate studied Elisa's heart-shaped face: those big, limpid eyes and dramatic cheekbones, the pretty, bow-shaped lips and profusion of white teeth. Each time Nate saw her, Elisa's beauty struck him anew, as if in the interval the memory of what she actually looked like had been distorted by the tortured emotions she elicited since they'd broken up: in his mind, she took on the dimensions of an abject creature. What a shock when she opened the door, bursting with vibrant, almost aggressive good health. The power of her beauty, Nate had once decided, came from its ability to constantly reconfigure itself. When he thought he'd accounted for it, filed it away as a dead fact—pretty girl—she turned her head or bit her lip, and like a children's toy you shake to reset, her prettiness changed shape, its coordinates altered: now it flashed from the elegant contours of her sloping brow and flaring cheekbone, now from her shyly smiling lips. "Elisa the Beautiful," Nate had said without thinking when she hugged him at the door. She'd beamed, breezily overlooking his lateness.
Yet only a short while later, he'd acclimated. Hannah had complimented her apartment. "I hate it," Elisa responded. "It's small, and it's laid out poorly. The fixtures are incredibly cheap." Then a quick smile: "Thank you, though."
The familiar hint of whine in Elisa's voice brought back to Nate an equally familiar cocktail of guilt and pity and dread. Also sheer annoyance—that spoiled, ill-tempered quality about her. Her prettiness became an irritant, a Calypso-like lure to entrap him again.
Will you be reading The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? What are you reading this week?
Anton DiSclafani's debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, is the story of a 15-year-old Thea Atwell who, following a scandal, is sent to a year-round camp for girls in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. This lush, sensual story moves back and forth between Thea's lives in North Carolina and back home in Florida, slowly building to reveal the secret at the heart of her banishment. As our reviewer writes, this "is a story to savor in the heat of summer."
For a sweet little preview of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, check out the book trailer via Headline Books:
Will you check this one out?
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
by Matt Bell
Soho • $25 • ISBN 9781616952532
published June 18, 2013
Yes, the title of this debut novel is a bit meandering, but it actually fits the vibe of author Matt Bell's story perfectly. The narrator of this entrancing fable lives with his wife "in the house upon the dirt between the lake and the woods." After getting married, they left the city, choosing a rural, secluded life in which he is a fisherman and trapper, while she tends to their home, which they hope to fill with children. Thick with fantastical allegories—the narrator navigates an enormous maze of corridors and rooms underneath their little cabin, and his wife sings things, like furniture and a moon, into existence—the book embraces the timeless and universal—and very real, primal—themes of love, grief, longing and jealousy. I can't decide which is more impressive: Bell's boundless imagination or the spare-yet-lyrical, simply lovely way that he has woven words together to express it. Prepare to be mesmerized.
Here, the novel's opening:
Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.
In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house's furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged—and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.
Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become stronger than ever before. I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired. We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared—the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child—and when the earliest signs of my wife's first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration.