Five Debut Novels You Should Read Right Now Or I’ll Come To Your House And Wear Your Slippers And Eat Your Food And Read Them To You
No time for blogging; it’s all been said, and better, anyway. Trayvon this. Baby George that. BlogHer blah blah blah.
Me? I’ve been reading, you see. Making good on my New Year’s resolution to read as many debut novels as I can afford to load onto my Nook HD+. An experiment of sorts to immerse myself in what first-time authors are getting published, in hopes of polishing my own feeble attempts at fiction writing. These are the gems (with descriptive blurbs courtesy of Goodreads and my own review of each) . . .
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
Verdict: An amazing debut. The writing is so catchy and never strays. Longish, but never slow. And don’t be fooled by those who whine about the portrayal of Christians. Being a recovering Pentecostal, I believe it was accurate and fair. Even sympathetic at times. Others have moaned about the ending. I found it completely fulfilling. Tough issues, handled with grace and care. And Montana!
Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith
Utina, Florida, is a small, down-at-heels southern town. Once enlivened by the trade in Palm Sunday palms and moonshine, Utina hasn’t seen economic growth in decades, and no family is more emblematic of the local reality than the Bravos. Deserted by the patriarch years ago, the Bravos are held together in equal measure by love, unspoken blame, and tenuously brokered truces.
The story opens on a sweltering July day, as Frank Bravo, dutiful middle son, is awakened by a distress call. Frank dreams of escaping to cool mountain rivers, but he’s only made it ten minutes from the family restaurant he manages every day and the decrepit, Spanish-moss-draped house he was raised in, and where his strong-willed mother and spitfire sister—both towering redheads, equally matched in stubbornness—are fighting another battle royale. Little do any of them know that Utina is about to meet the tide of development that has already engulfed the rest of Northeast Florida. When opportunity knocks, tempers ignite, secrets are unearthed, and each of the Bravos is forced to confront the tragedies of their shared past.
Reminiscent of Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, and Fannie Flagg,Heart of Palm introduces Laura Lee Smith as a captivating new voice in American fiction.
Verdict: Superb! A stunning debut, filled with rich characters, laughs and heartache, and unfailingly faith in the strength and the strangeness of family. Remember the old Paul Newman movie “Nobody’s Fool?” The same goosebumps. This is how characters are made, and remembered, for years to come.
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.
But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.
So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …
Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.
Verdict: A damn near perfectly written novel. Any synopsis would not do it justice, so go with your gut on this one. I laughed and cried and, for the first time, had to just sit and ponder this one when I finished it. Most impressive was the way the narrator never did anything that didn’t make sense to him. Building a moral framework in life is hard, but Alex rose to the challenge and found his heart. So impressed …
Truth In Advertising by John Kenney
“F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. I have no idea what that means but I believe that in quoting him I appear far more intelligent than I am. I don’t know about second acts, but I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”
Finbar Dolan is lost and lonely. Except he doesn’t know it. Despite escaping his blue-collar Boston upbringing to carve out a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he’s a bit of a mess and closing in on forty. He’s recently called off a wedding. Now, a few days before Christmas, he’s forced to cancel a long-postponed vacation in order to write, produce, and edit a Super Bowl commercial for his diaper account in record time.
Fortunately, it gets worse. Fin learns that his long-estranged and once-abusive father has fallen ill. And that neither of his brothers or his sister intend to visit. It’s a wake-up call for Fin to reevaluate the choices he’s made, admit that he’s falling for his coworker Phoebe, question the importance of diapers in his life, and finally tell the truth about his past.
Truth in Advertising is debut novelist John Kenney’s wickedly funny, honest, at times sardonic, and ultimately moving story about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family.
Verdict: It took a few pages to draw me in, and the story seemed to go nowhere at first. But I loved the style, written much the way I like to write, with asides and tangents that seem absurd at first but swing back around and illuminate the narrative as it unfolds. This is the first book I’ve read this year that I enjoyed because it is so much like the kind of story I’d like to write. There is heart here, even amidst the navel gazing and self-loathing. In the end, I cried. Hope rings true . . .
Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney
When Henry Cooper sets out on his mail route on Arcadia Street one crisp spring morning, he has no idea that his world is about to change. He is simply enjoying the sunshine as he lights up a cigar and tosses the match to the ground, entirely unaware that he has just started a fire that will destroy a neighborhood and kill a young wife.
Even though the fire has been put out, it has ignited a lurking menace in an otherwise apparently peaceful suburb. In Fellow Mortals, Dennis Mahoney depicts the fire’s aftermath in the lives of its survivors. There’s Henry’s wife, Ava, devoted to her husband but yearning to recover a simpler time in their marriage. There’s the angry neighbor, Peg, who wants Henry to pay for what he’s done, no matter the cost—which ends up being grave. And then there’s Sam Bailey, the sculptor who lost his wife in the fire and has retreated to the woods to carve mysterious figures out of trees. As Sam struggles to overcome his anger and loss, Henry becomes the focal point of deepening loyalties and resentments, leaving them all vulnerable to hidden dangers and reliant on the bonds that have emerged, unexpectedly, from tragedy.
With sparse and handsome prose reminiscent of Raymond Carver and early Stewart O’Nan, Mahoney’s probing first novel charts the fall of a man who has spent his life working to be decent and shows us a community trying desperately to hold itself together.
Verdict: A lovely debut novel. Full of the kind of characters I love, down to earth folks that you’re likely to run into at the supermarket. Reminded me of Dubus in many ways. Even the dog, Wingnut, is a fleshed-out, lovable creature. His point of view, though sparse, adds to the story. These people are flawed and perfect . . .
I’ve read more, some equally as good. But these stand out. Thematically, they are all similar: the complexities of families; recovery from tragedy; growing up and growing old. And each has given me much to chew on with regards to storytelling and writing.
If we’re not friends on Goodreads, remedy that here. And, by all means, send your suggestions. There’s a lot of year left. You know where I’ll be . . .