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.
It's still early in 2015, but at least one unknown female author has already rocketed to the top of bestseller lists (we're looking at you, Paula Hawkins!). Which other women will join her this year? Here's our list of the top 10 candidates.
THE FAIR FIGHT
Riverhead • April 14
Fans of authors like Sarah Waters and Michel Faber will thrill to Anna Freeman's debut, The Fair Fight, an exciting historical novel set in the little-known world of women's bare-knuckle boxing. Yes, in 1800s England, women—at least, some women—were allowed to escape the confines of the home to fight for prizes that were twice the annual salary of a housemaid (one of the few occupations for women at the time). But Freeman, who is a poet and lectures in English at Bath Spa University, goes beyond the blood splatters and missing teeth to take a broader look at the limitations of class and gender, encouraging readers to ponder who (if any) among her characters is given a fair fight.
Thomas Dunne • April 21
An artful mix of suspense, fantasy and social critique, Emily Schultz's The Blondes puts a feminist twist on the dystopian stories that have been crowding fiction shelves for the last several years. It's the near future in New York City, and grad student Hazel is pregnant after an affair with a married man. She's also confined to the house thanks to a mysterious virus that is turning blonde women into cold-blooded killers (luckily, Hazel is a natural redhead). Now blondes are no longer the butt of jokes but the world's worst nightmare. Schultz's work has been praised by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Stephen King (who gave an unwitting bump to her first novel, Joyland, when he published a book by the same name)—look for The Blondes to be embraced by an equally diverse group of readers.
Pamela Dorman • May 5
Retellings of Jane Eyre are not exactly thin on the ground (see 1 2 3 4), but Queens-born writer Patricia Park takes a fresh tack in her debut, Re Jane. She casts the quiet but strong-willed heroine as a mixed-race Korean orphan living with relatives in 2001 Flushing—and that's just the first twist Park puts on her decidedly 21st-century, girl-power take on the beloved classic, which sends its heroine from Brooklyn to Gangam and back again. Park, a Korean-American who spent time in Seoul on a Fulbright scholarship and has studied under the novelist Ha Jin, expertly details the cultural divides facing her heroine, adding another dimension to a tale that might otherwise seem too familiar.
GIRL AT WAR
Random House • May 12
It's impossible for those who have not experienced civil war to truly know what it's like—and that's one of the themes of 28-year-old Sara Nović's sensitive debut novel, Girl at War. Moving back and forth between 1991 Croatia and 2001 New York City, the story follows main character Ana as she survives a dangerous childhood and attempts to transition to a new family and culture in the United States. Nović's descriptions of Ana's wartime childhood convey how war can be both shocking and mundane as violence becomes part of everyday life. Girl at War was acquired and edited by Random House's David Ebershoff, who knows his talent: He was the editor of not one but two of the 2013 Pulitzer winners (The Orphan Master's Son and Embers of War).
Amistad • May 26
Novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez's 2010 debut, Wench, was a word-of-mouth hit with readers and explored a lesser-known corner of American history: the resorts where plantation owners would vacation with their enslaved mistresses. Her long-awaited second novel, Balm, takes an equally unflinching look at America's past and should bring this talented writer to an even bigger audience. Set in post-Civil War Chicago, it follows three strangers—a widowed white woman, a freeborn black woman from Tennessee and a former slave whose wife was sold away from him before the war—who move to the city for a chance to start over but are unable to completely shed their pasts.
THE BOOK OF SPECULATION
St. Martin's • June 23
Erika Swyler's debut, The Book of Speculation, is a bookish mystery with a supernatural twist. In a dilapidated house on Long Island Sound, librarian Simon Watson presides over a crumbling family legacy—until the day an old book arrives on his doorstep. It's the journal of a carnival owner, and it's connected to the drowning death of Simon's mother. Can he solve the mystery before his sister meets the same fate? Swyler, who has written short fiction and worked as a playwright, probes the bonds of sibling love and loyalty with the same authenticity she brings to the book's more magical elements, giving the novel surprising depth. Fans of family sagas with a touch of the fantastic should flock to it.
Harper • July 28
TV producer and author Lissa Evans is well known in her native England (fellow Brit Paula Hawkins is a fan), but this summer she's being published for the first time in the U.S. Crooked Heart is her fourth novel, and her second for an adult audience. Set during World War II, it follows a 10-year-old orphan who's a crime novel aficionado. He's evacuated during the Blitz and rehomed with Vera Sedge, a down-on-her-luck single mother with a penchant for money-making schemes, and the two form an unlikely bond. Their odd-couple friendship will appeal to readers of books like Lost & Found, and Evans' authentic period tone evokes the subtle charm of midcentury classics like I Capture the Castle.
Touchstone • August 18
Susan Barker made the 2008 longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize with her second novel, The Orientalist and the Ghost, but she's hovered just below most readers' radars. That just might change with the release of The Incarnations, a suspenseful tour through Chinese history and folklore that was described as "China's Midnight's Children" when it was published in the U.K. last year. In modern-day Beijing, Wang, a taxi driver, is being stalked by someone who claims to be his soul mate. As letters appear in his taxi telling the stories of their past lives over the last 1,000 years—all of which end in tragedy or betrayal—Wang's paranoia about his watcher's identity increases, and he begins to wonder if history will repeat itself.
St. Martin's • August 18
Celebrity authors may strike seven-figure deals without breaking a sweat, but for unknown writers, having a book snapped up at a price like that is a little less common. That is just one of the things that makes New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford's first novel, Everybody Rise, a standout. Set in 2006 New York City, the book plumbs the unfailingly popular literary trope of the young and privileged in Manhattan, as seen through the eyes of an imposter in their ranks. The film rights have been secured by Fox 2000.
FSG • October 6
OK, so maybe it's a little sneaky to put an author who's already a bestseller on a list like this. But Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There'd Be Cake) is making a transition from humorous essays to fiction—and I for one am intrigued about how she'll do it. The Clasp is described as "a comedy of manners," which is a novelistic genre that's a perfect match for Crosley's talents. Other intriguing elements include the exploration of how college friendships start to change in your late 20s, a madcap search for a missing family heirloom and a nod to Guy de Maupassant.
Check out our track record by viewing past women to watch lists here.
Actor, writer and onetime Oscar host James Franco has been tapped to star in TV streaming service Hulu's adaptation of 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Franco will play Jake Epping, an unassuming high school teacher who travels back in time to kill Lee Harvey Oswald.
King has an executive producer credit for the adaptation, which was optioned by J.J. Abrams' production company and will air as a nine-part "limited series." This is the highest profile original program to date for Hulu, which has yet to have a breakout hit like Netflix's "House of Cards" or "Orange Is the New Black." Though previous adaptations of King's work are definitely hit or miss, they're always high profile, and the hook of 11/22/63 is an attention-grabber. Will you watch it?
In her latest novel, Girl Before a Mirror, Liza Palmer puts a recently divorced ad exec in charge of a competition involving seven sexy male cover models. But it's a British financial consultant who really challenges Anna's self-imposed dating sabbatical. Palmer, who earned two Emmy nominations for her work on VH1's "Pop-Up Video," is known for writing thought-provoking love stories that take unpredictable turns. In this guest post, she talks about how she learned to own up to loving what she loves—no matter what "they" think.
By Liza Palmer
Growing up, I’d been pop culturally feral. No television until my 20s, no money in the oft-empty coffers to see movies, the only music we had was the 101 Dalmatians book on record and the Annie soundtrack. And while my mom had her fancy college books, I wasn’t truly swept away by a book until I read The Color Purple in high school.
Combine this with a circle of friends that were about as with it as I was and you’ve got a childhood far removed from the fandoms and peer pressure that usually mold us whether we like it or not. So, when I liked a thing, I just got to like it. And when I loved a thing, I got to love with it my everything. The Twilight Bark can still bring me to tears, and don’t even get me started on making something shine like the top of the Chrysler building.
And then it happens. Maybe you announce—HYPOTHETICALLY, OF COURSE—that your favorite song is “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang and it’s met with snickering and some side eye. Maybe you proudly tell your friends that you bought that new Oakridge Boys tune and . . . maybe you hum a few bars of “Elvira” and learn that not everyone is as big a fan of multi-harmony genius as you are. And because being different in junior high was second only to death, I adapted. But, what started as me adapting came very close to ending with me disappearing.
If I liked a thing, I learned whether it was something I could like out loud or in secret. These were the books I could proudly display, and these were the ones I read when no one was around. These were the songs I put on mixes and these were the songs I told people I listened to “at the gym.” These were the movies I tweeted about and these were the movies I told people I liked “ironically.”
The me that loved things with all my heart got eroded away until I didn’t even remember what loving things purely felt like anymore. And although it feels slightly melodramatic, once I’d been corrupted it was much easier to then join the ranks of those who made fun of people who had the audacity to love the things that made them happy out loud, no matter the protest.
We are told that these *points to a very high shelf full of fancy things* are IMPORTANT. And if we don’t like these fancy things then we ourselves are not important. If we say we didn’t like it, we are told we didn’t “get it.” If we enjoy something They feel is pedestrian, then we become the reason our civilization is crumbling.
But then, the voice of reason came crackling through the darkness. And, as is usually the way in my life, the voice of reason was Joshua from WarGames.
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
The only winning move is not to play—whether we’re talking about Global Thermonuclear war or being true to oneself. I am valuable not because of the things I like, but because of the person I am. I am more than an algorithm. We deserve more than a brooding barista who only likes us because he thinks we like jazz. It’s time to recapture that same little kid sprawled out on our bedroom floors surrounded by an explosion of the things that made us happy.
We get to say what is important. And if something makes you happy, then it’s important. And guys. The Oakridge Boys are a really good band.
A novel about female wrestlers in the 1950s? Sign this jaded fiction editor up—that's not a summary I read every day. In Angelina Mirabella's winning (ha) debut novel, 17-year-old Leonie is stuck in Philly, waiting tables and caring for her aging father. But then a wrestling promoter walks into her diner and her life is changed forever—she's off to Florida to train at Joe Pospisil's School for Lady Grappling.
Mirabella tells her story in the second person, allowing the reader to fully step into Leonie's shoes, like a choose-your-own-adventure. Here's Leonie in the ring for the first time, with a fellow trainee and friend, Peggy.
"I'm sorry. What do you want us to do?" [Peggy] ventures.
"What do you mean, what do I want you to do?" Joe asks, his hands extended in front of him. "This is a match. You are opponents. So wrestle, damn it."
"Oh," you say, blinking back at Peggy. The two of you stare at each other for a while, each waiting for the other to begin, to offer up some clue as to how this might go. Thankfully, Peggy steps forward and takes you by the soulders, granting you permission to do the same. It is a strange sensation, to be locked in ref's position with her—not just another woman, but a buddy. It is a decidedly tentative press, and it makes you tentative, too. How real should this be? What are the boundaries? And what is she to you, exactly? Is she your colleague, or your rival?
"Well, this is boring," says Joe. "Would either of you care to do anything that might keep a paying customer from walking out?"
"Like this?" says Peggy, and she drops down and grabs your legs out from under you.
What are you reading this week?
Get excited: 2015 is going to be a terrific year for readers. For those of you who love to count down the days to the release of that book you can't wait to get your hands on, we've compiled a list of 15 books that we think will be among the most beloved—and most talked-about—releases of the year.
It's been way too long since Link released a story collection, but the wait is almost over—Get in Trouble will be published in just a couple of weeks. This collection of stories finds ordinary people getting mixed up with superheroes, fairies and far-future playboys. (Our reviewer compares her writing to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer.") In other words, get ready for deliciously creepy, completely magical fun. read more>>
The Japanese-born and English-bred author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day—who never writes the same book twice—returns in March with his first novel in 10 long years. It's a fable-like story set in a vaguely medieval world that is actually the near future—sounds complicated, but we have faith that this much-lauded writer will pull off something magical.
Among current writers of narrative nonfiction, none can top Larson’s skill for weaving parallel story lines into a gripping account of a historical event. The sinking of the luxury liner the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by a German U-boat seems tailor-made for the Larson treatment, with a cast of characters ranging from Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson to the ship’s many notable passengers.
Condé Nast Travel editor and novelist Yanagihara returns with a second novel, following her breakthrough 2013 debut, The People in the Trees. A powerful story of friendship, loyalty and the difficulty of overcoming your past, A Little Life may be the best book you read this year—and it will almost certainly be the most heartbreaking. Fans of Lionel Shriver or Ian McEwan, meet your new favorite writer. read more>>
The Water for Elephants author returns to historical fiction in her fifth novel, which is set in 1942. In the height of World War II, a spoiled Philadelphia socialite sets out with her husband and their best friend to find the Loch Ness Monster. Once there, she discovers some hard truths about life and the people she loves. read more>>
The author of the mega-bestseller Born to Run returns with another fascinating story sure to make runners want to lace up their shoes and hit the road—and sure to give armchair travelers another setting to dream about. This time, McDougall's story begins on the island of Crete, where a daring band of WWII Resistance fighters pulled off the astonishing feat of kidnapping a heavily guarded Nazi general.
Could a book about forgoing marriage possibly deliver the same kind of jolt as Bolick’s 2011 Atlantic cover story on the subject? Why, yes — yes it could. Based on what we’ve seen, her unapologetic (and wonderfully readable) look at living life on her own terms as a single woman will spur a whole new round of debate about the personal and social consequences of plummeting marriage rates.
No one writes about the complicated history of the black experience in America with more clarity and authority than Morrison, and she has the prizes to show for it: She's won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, not to mention the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her 11th novel centers on the relationship between a light-skinned black woman and her dark-skinned daughter, whose different skin tones create a divide between them. read more>>
The latest work of popular history from reader favorite and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner McCullough sounds irresistible: Two bicycle mechanics who grew up in a house without plumbing or electricity (but plenty of books) manage to create one of the greatest inventions in human history—the first flying machine. Assisting the brave and ingenious Wright brothers was their sister Katharine, whose contributions have been heretofore mostly overlooked.
Kate Atkinson's stellar Life After Life was one of the best books of 2013. So the news that the Scottish author is returning with a companion story is most welcome. She's exploring the life of Teddy, Ursula's flyboy younger brother—both his adventures in the RAF and the life he returns to after those wartime experiences, which contains even greater challenges. read more>>
Accomplished storyteller Kent Haruf died last December, but readers can look forward to one more trip to Holt, Colorado, this summer. Haruf continues to chronicle the lives of extraordinary, ordinary people in his new work, which finds a widow and widower forging an unlikely friendship. read more>>
The author of Summer Sisters and YA classics like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret will release a new novel for adults in June. It's based on the true story of three unexplained airplane crashes that took place in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. It's a storyline that reads as all too timely after the Malaysian Air disaster last spring. read more>>
Paula McLain's second novel, The Paris Wife, chronicled the life of Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson—and was one of the standouts amid the wave of stories about the wives of famous men that followed on the heels of Nancy Horan's 2007 bestseller, Loving Frank. McLain returns this year with the story of a woman who had no trouble standing on her own two feet: 1920s aviator Beryl Markham. read more>>
The author who inspires more schauedenfreud than perhaps any other returns in September with a family drama that spans decades and continents as it follows Purity Tyler's quest to find her father. read more>>
Judging from the response to her Ted talks on creativity, there’s a huge audience awaiting Gilbert’s in-depth look at how inspiration and imagination can combine to unleash the “strange jewels” within us all. The author of Eat, Pray, Love will offer advice on how we can conquer our fears and lead a creative life—whether we’re authors, artists or accountants. read more>>
Paula McLain's The Paris Wife was one of the standouts among the crop of books starring the wives of famous men, a trend that launched with Nancy Horan's 2007 bestseller Loving Frank. On July 7, McLain's third novel will be published by Ballantine—but this time, she's taking on the life of a woman who can stand on her own: aviator Beryl Markham.
Markham was the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic, a feat she chronicled in her 1942 memoir West with the Night. According to early reports, McLain will also delve into Markham's rivalry with Out of Africa author Karen Blixen.
Any Paris Wife fans looking forward to this one?
Photo by Stephen Cutri.
Lisa Genova's remarkable 2009 debut, Still Alice, stands out for its sensitive portrayal of an intelligent woman faced with a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's. In fact, the book was one of those rare self-published success stories—it was picked up by Gallery Books, who will also publish Inside the O'Briens, her fourth novel, in April.
This week, the film version of Still Alice will hit cinemas. Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, the film is already generating some awards buzz. (An actress playing a character with an illness is second only to an actress playing "ugly" when it comes to Oscar bait.) I dare you to not tear up at some point during the trailer below.
Will you see it?
Scottish author Irvine Welsh turns his off-kilter worldview to his new home country: the United States. Luckily for fans of the Trainspotting author, there's plenty of weird and crazy antics on the streets of Miami Beach, where personal trainer Lucy discovers that the two men she rescued from a crazed attacker are actually pedophiles (oops). That's only the first of many wild twists taken in this story, whose narrator is something like Jillian Michaels, times 10—in other words, not very generous to her clients.
They want to believe that it's all easy from here on in. That it can literally be done in their sleep. Because heaven forbid that they interrupt sitting in front of the TV, rising only to refrigerator-raid and pack shit into their sneaky, blubbery mouths. They don't wanna get up before ten, eleven. Perish the thought that any diet and exercise regime should impinge on those basic American freedoms.
What are you reading this week?
Merry Christmas! Thought today might be a good time to let Stephen King's millions of readers (a group I've been a member of since my tweens) know that the unstoppable, prolific author (seriously, has anyone considered putting King and Joyce Carol Oates in a write-off?) has a new book, Finders Keepers, coming in June 2015. And it stars the same "winning trio" of detectives he introduced in his June 2014 release, Mr. Mercedes.
Another return to theme for King: The novel's antagonist is a "vengeful reader" who is upset that his favorite author, the Salinger-like John Rothstein, is no longer writing books. Shades of Misery, anyone?
Author photo by Sean Leonard.