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.
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.
August is First Fiction Month on BookPage.com! Click here for complete coverage.
Use your past favorites to discover your favorite new voice! Here are 10 notable first novels paired with their 2013 read-alikes. Agree? Disagree? Duke it out with me in the comments.
Like Prada, Kwan's debut features a likable heroine thrust into a world beyond her ken. Only instead of the fashion elite, Rachel is brought into the secretive kingdom of the offshore Chinese, a community with wealth and privilege beyond her wildest imaginings.
Like Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 bestseller, Rhonda Riley's debut tells the story of an ordinary woman in love with someone who's . . . not so ordinary. Along the way, it explores questions about the nature of love and identity.
If you like quirks, literary chops and a touch of magic in your fiction, The Rathbones is the 2013 debut for you. It stars a spunky teenage heroine who sets out on a search for a missing relative—and encompasses 100 years of Rathbone family history in the process.
Marra's accomplished debut is set in war-torn Chechnya, and, like Obreht's, manages to tell a compelling story while exploring the effects of a brutal civil war. Insightful and enlightening, this is the sort of novel that helps you see the world differently.
Like Fielding, Double Feature manages to tackle the tricky topic of young man coming of age without self-indulgence or pretension—although King's hero Sam Dolan must prove himself in Hollywood rather than on the baseball field. Both novels surround a dynamic male lead with an equally true-to-life, crowd-pleasing cast of characters, and ably walk the line between tragedy and comedy.
Though set in different eras, these two debuts both masterfully evoke the Southern landscape and culture and feature down-and-out protagonists who could use a little bit of luck—not to mention poetic, spare prose.
Alice Sebold's first novel broke the rules by killing her narrator in the opening pages. Nutting's debut is possibly even more transgressive: Its narrator is an unrepentant, beautiful and cold young woman who preys on her teen students. But a bold premise is nothing without an equally strong and original voice—and both of these books have it.
A story told in letters, set mostly on a small, isolated island during a world war—this summary could describe either of these charming novels. Although each has its own distinct voice, both handily evoke their eras and will please fans of love stories and small-town tales.
Though the settings of these two novels could not be more different—an isolated island off the coast of Australia vs. a modern American prison—the moral questions raised by each will have a similar resonance in readers' minds.
With a settings ranging from Sweden to Spain's stunning Costa del Sol, this fast-paced crime thriller is hard-boiled enough to satisfy fans of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward. Set in the women's prison in Gatestown, Texas, this heartfelt and challenging novel is a true literary page-turner that intertwines the lives of three women: a murderer waiting to be executed on death row—who is at the same time desperately ill with AIDS—the widow of the man she murdered and the physician responsible for the inmate's care.
In lean, luminous prose, Ward taps into her own chilling experiences visiting one of the state's women's prisons. Her sharply drawn characters ponder life's capital-letter concepts: Guilt, Vengeance, Forgiveness. As Mills says, while driving to witness Lowens' execution, "The fact is that in the abstract, I do believe in mercy. . . . I believe people make mistakes, and that they should be given a chance to atone. But I also feel that something was taken away from me . . . and that I deserve something back."
Read the full review from our July 2003 issue here.
Today's Debut of the Day pick is The Spellman Files, the 2007 debut of Lisa Lutz, a former screenwriter. Wacky and irreverent, this is a quirky first novel that will appeal to fans of "Arrested Development" and the works of Maria Semple.
The first in a series, The Spellman Files tells the story of Isabelle Spellman, a tough-talking 28-year-old (described by another character as "Dirty Harry meets Nancy Drew") who works for her eccentric family's P.I. business. Investigating others is their formal objective, but the family including alcoholic gambler Uncle Ray and Izzy's 14-year-old sister Rae (who is known to snap incriminating photos of family members to use as blackmail) regularly probe each other's lives as well. This comes to a head when Izzy starts dating nice-guy dentist Daniel and can't go on a date without turning around to find her mother hot on her tail.
Click here to read the entire interview from our April 2007 issue.