Not all of us can follow an author from the very beginning—sometimes it takes a breakout with book #2 to prove an author's mettle. These four authors made a splash with their second novels in 2014, so why not go back to where it all began and check out their debuts?
Fans of this year's remarkable Astonish Me shouldn't miss Shipstead's 2012 debut, Seating Arrangements, perhaps the smartest book ever written about the leadup to a wedding. As our reviewer put it, "Like J. Courtney Sullivan in Maine or Galt Niederhoffer in The Romantics, Shipstead places deeply flawed characters in an idyllic setting and creates an unforgettable world."
Readers who were swept up in Rachman's worldwind world tour of a second novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, might be surprised by the smaller stage he set for his first novel, The Imperfectionists, a story of journalists working at a struggling paper in Rome. Our reviewer said, "Perhaps the unnamed paper is deserving of the destiny that looms over it in these stories. But by the time its fate has become clear, it’s hard not to greet it with a touch of sympathy engendered by Rachman’s vivid tales."
Did you love the dysfunctional family dynamics in Straub's summer hit, The Vacationers? You might be intrigued to learn that her debut novel, 2012's Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, was a completely different sort of book. A historical novel set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it followed a young Wisconsin woman's quest for fame and fortune. Our reviewer called the book "a marvel," going on to say that "Her silken writing conjures images of old Hollywood, all red lipstick and Glenn Miller, but even more impressively, Straub paints a vivid portrait of a woman torn between her desire for fame and what she must leave behind to win it."
Makkai's second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is an ambitious story of one very unusual home and the lives of its residents over the last hundred years. It's a sort of literary scavenger hunt, where the seemingly diverse tales come together in a satisfying way. Her first novel, The Borrower, was one of the most acclaimed debuts of 2011, earning praise from the likes of Richard Russo. Our reviewer described the book as "a wonderful celebration of books and friendship, brimming with literary references and plenty of laughs." A book about books? Something we can totally get behind.
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.
Use your past favorites to discover your favorite new voice! Here are some notable first novels paired with their 2014 read-alikes. Agree? Disagree? Duke it out with me in the comments.
Susanna Clarke's twist on the conventions of the magician's tale captured reader imaginations nearly 10 years ago. Lauren Owen brings the same energy and creativity to the tired trope of the undead in The Quick, which is set in the Victorian era. When Charlotte's brother, James, goes missing in London, she leaves their isolated Yorkshire estate to discover what's happend to him—and uncovers a fate that just might be worse than death.
No, it's not just the word "box" that these books have in common—it's the creeping sense of horror and the difficulty you'll have falling asleep after reading them. The bogeyman in Malerman's debut goes nameless and undescribed, since to see it is to go mad. But its very vagueness increases the menace.
Like Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed debut, Boris Fishmann's first novel follows a young man who is grappling with his Jewish heritage in an unusual way. But instead of traveling through Eastern Europe, Slava Gelman is helping his grandparents' friends apply for restitution from the German government—whether or not they were directly affected by the Holocaust.
Fans of Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees and Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt shouldn't miss the first novel from McNeal, a touching coming-of-age story set in Civil Rights Era New Orleans. Dollbaby is the story of Ibby Bell, a young girl who is abandoned by her flighty mother on the doorstep of the grandmother she's never met in the wake of her father's tragic death. As Ibby adjusts to life in the South—and to the habits of her eccentric grandmother, Fannie—she must navigate some troubling family secrets.
Like the works of Sarah Addison Allen and early Alice Hoffman, Creech's debut is centered on women who have more than a touch of magic in their lives. The Lenore women have long been able to make a living off their unique perfumes, which contain a secret ingredient from a magical flower cultivated by their ancestor. But when the flower suddenly begins to sicken and die, a prodigal Lenore sister may be key to bringing them back to life.
Ben Fountain took on the military and the media in his award-winning debut; German-born author Clark takes a similarly satirical and darkly humorous look at the food industry in Sweetness #9, the story of the inventor of an artificial sweetener and his slow realization that the consequences of his invention might be more serious than he could have imagined.
Fans of the friendly, uplifting and heartwarming will enjoy the first work of fiction from Woodroof, a longtime NPR contributor. It stars a long suffering college professor who falls in love and finds out he has a son all in the same eventful summer. Eccentric hero Tom's crooked path to love and family will charm fans of Graeme Simsion's quirky first novel.
Nancy Horan was one of the early adopters of the "telling stories of lost women in history" genre. In her remarkable first novel, Kimberly Elkins brings not one but two historical women to life in her debut novel, which tells the story of Laura Bridgman, the first woman to learn the language of the deaf/blind/mute that was later taught to Helen Keller.
Just as Hannah Kent brought to life the vanished world of 1820s Iceland, so Jessie Burton reveals the intricacies of 17th-century Amsterdam in her first novel, The Miniaturist. When country girl Nelle marries a rich merchant, she is at first in awe of his opulent household—and his icy sister, Marin. But as Nelle gains a foothold in her new family, she realizes they are hiding some dangerous secrets.
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?
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)
One of the most notable debuts of the century so far is Alice Sebold's strikingly inventive The Lovely Bones, the story of a murdered young girl who watches from above as her family attempts to find her killer. For today's Flashback Friday, we're swinging back to 2002 to see what our reviewer—one of the first to pick up this bestseller—had to say about a book that eventually reached millions.
"When you kill off your narrator in the first 10 pages of a novel and tell readers who the killer is you'd better have one compelling story up your sleeve. Alice Sebold does."