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."
There's something ominous circling the three characters in David Shafer's debut novel, but quite frankly, I haven't been giving it much attention. I've been far too caught up in Shafer's unrelenting humor—which is wicked and dark, just how I like it—and his spotless characterization. That being said, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also fulfills all the requirements of an outstanding technothriller, with pulsing strains of paranoia and those all-seeing technological powers-that-be.
The story centers around 30-somethings Leila, Leo and Mark. Leo and Mark were friends at Harvard, but Leo is now a bit of a loser, while Mark is a phony self-help guide who works for the Committee, a data collection agency that seeks to privatize all information. Leila is a disillusioned nonprofit worker on the other side of the world. The only thing keeping the Committee from its goal is a secret underground Internet called Dear Diary. With jabs at every political angle, a love story and plenty of cool tech, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a pageturner of the highest order.
Read on for an excerpt from Leo's first scene:
There was no one even near Leo when he flew from his bike. His mind cast about for a culprit, for someone to blame other than himself. The bike just ceased its forward motion and he did not. How surprising, how nifty physics was. And as he trebucheted toward a four-inch curb, aware at once that his meeting with it would be physically calamitous, he remembered that he was wearing no helmet, and his surprised turned to fear. A month ago, at a party to which his friend Louis had brought him, Leo had heard (well, overheard) the host claiming that he wasn't afraid of death. That particular claim seemed to Leo to be demonstrably false. So, costumed as Jesus (for this was a Halloween party), Leo had decided to explore the man's reasoning. Not afraid of death, huh? My, that must make you a real psychopath. But he had seen almost immediately that he should not have told the man that he was like a Holocaust denier. "I said like a Holocaust denier. Like," he protested lamely when Louis escorted him out of the party and told him to enjoy the bracing walk home dressed as Jesus.
No, thought Leo, as he landed his right hand, fingertips first, on the cold nubbly of the curb, I am definitely more than a body, but I believe I am less than a soul.
Then, with a fluid agility that hadn't been his in years, Leo tucked his head and vertical body behind the leading edge of his rounded arm. Some latent muscle memory from five months of jujitsu at the McBurney YMA on West Sixty-Third Street from when he was ten? Leo seemed to recall that this YMCA had in fact served the adventurous class of men described in the song. Now, he felt a point beneath his stomach become the axis of his spinning mass, and he knew to use that dragony breath to take the hit when, after about 120 degrees, his trunk met the sidewalk, hard. Next was his hip and ass, which rolled over not just the concrete but also a busted padlock on the scene by chance. Then came his knees and feet, with a thwack. That was followed by his trailing left arm, which lay down gently, and his gloved palm, which landed and sprang back, the way a conguero lands a hand on the taut hide of his drum.
Leo stood up. He was fine. Just fine. Right as rain.
Leo stood up again, this time more carefully. Okay, maybe fine was an overstatement. But ambulatory and intact. A bit exhilarated, actually.
His bike lay twisted in the street behind him, its front tire still clamped in the groove of the new light-rail system tracks they were laying all over town. Only now did he notice the yellow-and-black warming signs that would have made him aware of the hazard his bike had to cross. The graphics depicted pretty much what had just happened: a bicycle with its front wheel caught in the maw of the track, the blockish pictogram rider hurtling over the handlebars. An honest piece of graphic art; a tiny, two-line picture poem, thought Leo, and he started to upbraid himself for his carelessness and lack of attention.
But wait. On one corner—the direction from which he'd come—the warning sign was there, but it was swathed in black plastic, taped up tight.
The thought came like a revelation: This was no accident. They obscured that sign because they want me eliminated.
Some part of him said, No, don't be ridiculous. But then why was only one sign shrouded?
What are you reading today?
Mary Kubica's startling debut thriller, The Good Girl, has been enjoying plenty of buzz and anticipation ahead of today's release.
Our reviewer has high praise for this "psychological puzzle that will keep readers on their toes" complete with an "especially satisfying" end reveal.
Mia Dennett, a 24-year-old art teacher, comes from a well-groomed family and seems poised to continue climbing Chicago's social ladder—until the day she vanishes without a trace.
Told from alternating points of view and timelines, this mystery is sure to keep you confounded until Kubica finally puts the pieces in order.
Watch the trailer below, but don't say we didn't warn you about the creep-out factor:
What do you think, readers? Interested in reading more? Check out our Q&A with Kubica for The Good Girl.
Courtney Maum's debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You asks a heart-wrenching question: Can you fall back in love with your spouse?
Seven years have passed since Richard Haddon, a well-known British artist, met his stunning French wife, Anne. The passion and fierce devotion the couple shared has faded, and when Anne learns of her husband's affair with an American, she kicks him out of their home, leaving Richard to discover the full weight of his mistakes.
Maum's portrayal of a modern marriage on the rocks is honest and touching, with plenty of wit to spare.
Watch the trailer below:
What do you think, readers?
Debut author Pia Padukone explores cultural identity, grief and how we love in her novel, Where Earth Meets Water. Karom Seth is haunted by his brushes with fate: he should have been in the Twin Towers for a school project on 9/11, and he should have been at the family reunion when a tsunami on the Indian coast claimed his entire family in 2004. Karom is left with his grief, his guilt and his father's cherished Rolex. His girlfriend, Gita, invites him on a trip to India in hopes of helping him find answers and closure, and Gita's grandmother, Kamini, may be the one person that can point him in the right direction.
"Should the guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free of sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creatres sorrowing sighs,
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made,
To display thereby the creator's glory!"
"It's what Shah Jahan said about the Taj," Karom said, folding the paper back into his pocket. Gita closed her eyes and leaned against him. He wanted to comfort her, but he too felt let down. Nothing had happened. There had been no revelations.
Karom had been sure that he would leave the Taj Mahal with a deeper understanding of the world, of colors, of light, of love. He was sure that something magical would transform them, would transform him, the way he saw the world. He had placed too high an expectation on the Taj Mahal. After all, it was just a building. But it was a building that was homage to love, homage to the departed. He'd wondered if he would catch a glimpse of the past here, if he might tap into the spirit of the palace, the serenity of the courtyards. He'd wondered if, like a sinner, he too might be absolved, washed pure and clean, and set into the streets refreshed. He'd wondered if he might put lingering ghosts to bed and feel, for the first time, at ease with himself and finally, finally have the strength to put the game to rest.
What are you reading this week?
Josh Malerman infuses his apocalyptic tale, Bird Box, with an element of the "thrilling dread of yesteryear;" the menacing "monster" in his tale is never fully revealed to the reader.
Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of Malorie, her present and more recent past unfold, and we discover just why her two four-year-old children—Boy and Girl—have never been outside of their own home. There's something roaming the world, and it drives whoever sees it violently and irreparably mad, even with a single glimpse.
Malerman's creation of a menace that can never be fully perceived—by his characters or his readers—makes this a blood-curdling and incredibly thrilling read unlike anything in recent memory.
If you're feeling brave, then watch the spooky trailer below:
What do you think, readers? Are you interested in picking up a copy of Bird Box?