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Posts Tagged ‘first novel’

wrongtodaysIt’s about time. Really. In addition to having a wonderfully apt title, Elan Mastai’s first novel All Our Wrong Todays (Dutton Penguin, digital galley) is a wonderfully entertaining and timely tale of alternate realities.

Narrator Tom Barron lives in a 2016 Toronto that resembles the techno-utopia imagined by cheesy SF novels and shows of the 1950s, all flying cars and helpful robots and synthetic food. As every schoolchild knows, this was all made possible by the 1965 invention of the Goettreider Engine, which generates clean energy. Tom’s father, an overbearing research scientist, has finally built the world’s first time machine and plans to send ace chrononaut (time traveler) Penelope Weschler back to 1965 to observe the debut of the Goettreider. But then Tom falls in love with perfection-obsessed Penelope, which leads to disastrous consequences that are further compounded when he travels back to 1965. As every time traveler knows, you don’t mess with things in the past or you risk messing up the timeline and life as we know it  Oh dear. Tom’s arrival in 1965 means the Goettreider Engine fails in spectacular fashion, and when Tom is catapulted back to 2016, he finds himself in our 2016, all fossil-fueled and climate-change challenged.

It’s a clever conceit, that we are living in the dystopia, but Mastai has more tricks to play. Parts of Tom’s life are better in this second 2016. His dad is a happy science teacher, and his literature-loving mom is still alive. He has a sister and a career as successful architect. Still, when Tom starts trying to tell everyone about his time travels, they think he has suffered a head injury and is just talking about the novel he was going to write. Even his new love, bookstore owner Penny, doubts him. To prove he’s not crazy, Tom goes in search of the real-life creator of the Goettreider Engine, journeying to San Francisco and Hong Kong, and eventually back to 1965 again. Oh dear. Messing with that timeline.

All Our Wrong Todays reminded me of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, with its witty tone and provocative ideas. It also wears its knowledge lightly — like The Big Bang Theory — so that even those who’ve forgotten high school physics or aren’t into science fiction can enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s kind of out there, but so much is these days. I was pleased to know that even in alternate realities, people still read Dickens’ Great Expectations. So read All Our Wrong Todays. It’s a good time.

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sweetbitterStephanie Danler’s first novel arrives like the tangy summer cocktail you didn’t know you wanted but can’t stop drinking. Sweetbitter (Knopf, digital galley) turns out to be the perfect title for this coming-of-age, living-in-New York tale, a heady concoction of youthful yearning and impulse.

Coffee-shop waitress Tess, 22, arrives in New York in 2006 and gets a job as a backwaiter at a landmark restaurant, where she is yelled at by the chef, hazed by her fellows and mentored by the older server Simone. She learns about fine wine and good food, from the seductiveness of figs to the aggressiveness of winter lettuces. She is just as hungry for experience, and indulges in after-hour drinks and drugs with the staff, and despite Simone’s warnings, falls for bartender Jake. “I could tell you to leave him alone. That he’s complicated, not in a sexy way, but in a damaged way. I could tell you damage isn’t sexy, it’s scary. You’re still young enough to think every experience will improve you in some long-term way, but it isn’t true. How do you suppose damage gets passed on?”

Tess pays no attention and gives into desire, consequences be damned. Danler writes the same way, giving voice to the reckless invincibility of being young and in love with love and life. When a buttoned-down college acquaintance shows up at the restaurant and snobbishly suggests that Tess be his table’s waitress, Tess hides behind a polite smile.  “I wanted to say,  My life is full. I chose this life because it’s a constant assault of color and taste and light and it’s raw and ugly and fast and it’s mine. And you’ll never understand. Until you live it, you don’t understand.”

Or you could read Sweetbitter.

modernWhen do you grow up? What rite of passage marks you as an adult? College graduation?  Buying a house? Marriage? Parenthood? Or is it the first time you have sex? Or how about when you first find out your kids are having sex? Two of the three couples in Emma Straub’s new novel Modern Lovers (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley) mull over such mid-life mysteries as neighbors in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. The other couple — teens Ruby and Harry — are too busy obeying hormones to ask anything beyond, “Do you have something?”

Harry’s parents — Elizabeth and Andrew — were classmates at Oberlin with one of Ruby’s moms, Zoe, and they had a band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth bandmate, Lydia, broke away and soared to fame with a song Elizabeth wrote, “Mistress of Myself,” then died of a heroin overdose at 27. Now, 20 years later, the past comes calling when Hollywood wants to make a biopic of  Lydia, and needs the other three to sign over rights. That’s ok with Zoe, who is coping with Ruby’s moods and with her faltering marriage to Jane, the chef  at their trendy restaurant Hyacinth. Elizabeth, now a real estate agent, thinks the movie idea is cool and is surprised that her trust-fund husband Andrew is so adamantly against it. Andrew, who has never had a meaningful job, wants to put life on pause while he sorts things out, so he gets involved with a local yoga/meditation commune. Meanwhile, rebellious Ruby, who has just graduated from high school, fools around with mild-mannered Harry, who can’t believe his luck.

Straub is a sharp, observant writer, and Modern Lovers is a diverting comedy of manners much like her last novel, The Vacationers. But the characters aren’t nearly as interesting and cool as they think they are — Andrew is especially annoying — and their meanderings don’t really add up to much. At one point, a marriage counselor asks Zoe and Jane why they aren’t asking each other the hard questions, and they reply that things are ok and they don’t want to rock the boat for fear it might topple. Mmm. Modern Lovers could do with more rocking and rolling. Instead, it glides along, easily handling the gentle swells of modern middle age.

 

 

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tuesdaysThe books are busting out all over, and I’m desperately trying to keep up with the reading and writing. I should have posted about Molly Prentiss’ first novel, Tuesdays Nights in 1980 (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), a month ago when I first read it. Happily, Prentiss’ atmospheric portrait of the burgeoning New York art scene circa the early ’80s is seared in my memory. In pre-gentrification SoHo, three lives intersect and combust. James Bennet is an art critic whose synesthesia gives him an edge when it comes to describing color and feeling; Raul Engales, a painter who has left behind Argentina’s Dirty War, is poised to become the next big thing; and Lucy, the beautiful and naive young woman straight off the bus from Idaho, is in love with the city and its artists, its passion and possibility. Never mind the squalor, Lucy downs a drink that tastes like “poison and sunshine,” does a little modeling, and becomes Raul’s muse until a tragic accident upends lives and dreams. Prentiss’ writing has the rush of a fevered, impressionistic dream.

thenestCynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s first novel, The Nest (Ecco, library hardcover), has been riding a wave of publicity, and this New York-centric tale of family dysfunction offers voyeuristic entertainment. The four Plumb siblings, now middle-aged, have counted on inheriting their mutual trust fund to cover all their first-world debts and expenses, but elder son Leo’s latest escapade has depleted “the Nest.” Right out of rehab, charming Leo promises to repay the funds, but Beatrice, who can’t finish her novel, and Jack, who has lied to his partner about the solvency of his antiques business, and Melody, who faces a high mortgage and college tuition for her twin daughters, doubt their brother’s assurances, considering his ex-wife’s demands. It’s hard to sympathize with the siblings as they run around like chickens missing their heads, but I did like Leo’s on-and-off girlfriend Stephanie, determined but tenderhearted, and Melody’s adventurous twins, who gleefully outwit her stalking by app.

allofusNow the Rockwell family really knows how to put the “fun” in dysfunction in Bridget Asher’s sprightly novel All of Us and Everything (Bantam, review copy), a spring selection of the SheReads online book club. Augusta Rockwell always told her three daughters that their absent father was an international spy away on secret missions. That outrageous story has echoed through the years until, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a mysterious box of letters surfaces and the three grown sisters — Esme, Liv, Ru — return to their childhood home to help their mother and survey the damage. Also on the scene are Esme’s newly fatherless teenage daughter Atty, with a serious Twitter addiction; the longtime housekeeper, who knows more than she lets on; and a prodigal neighbor who had a crush on Liv as a teenager and was the subject of Ru’s first screenplay. Asher manages the ensuing antics with ease, but takes quirkiness to the extreme. (Taxidermy squirrels). Still, Augusta’s memories of the love of her life — she met him on a bus during a snowstorm — are affecting, as are later scenes of reconnection and resolution. All in all, a memorable and messy family reunion.

whodoyouFirst love and second chances. Jennifer Weiner puts a spin on this classic premise and comes up a winner with Who Do You Love (Washington Square Press, review copy), now out in paperback and another SheReads spring pick. Eight-year-old Rachel Blum is recovering from heart surgery when she escapes from her hospital room to the ER one night and meets fellow eight-year-old Andy Landis, alone with a broken arm. They don’t expect to meet again, but serendipity and circumstances bring them together again — and again. In alternating chapters, Weiner focuses on Rachel and Andy, mostly apart but always on the verge of getting back together. Can true love conquer all? Maybe, maybe not, when families, social class and issues such as alcoholism, addiction and adultery get in the way. Thirtysomething years pass quickly with more than one surprise, but it’s the credible characters and small moments that touch the heart. Yes, those are tears in your eyes.

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studyincharlotteOh, my. Holmes and Watson are being framed for murder. But it’s not elementary, my dears, but high school. In Brittany Cavallaro’s clever A Study in Charlotte (HarperCollins, digital galley), Charlotte Holmes, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the famous Sherlock Holmes, and Jamie Watson, the great-great-great grandson of John Watson, end up at the same New England prep school. Their initial run-in doesn’t portend a happy partnership, however.

Brilliant Charlotte, tutored in deductive skills since childhood, has been helping Scotland Yard since she was 10. Rumor has it that some unfortunate incident has landed her at Sherringford, where she keeps mostly to herself, plays the violin, conducts experiments in her own lab and has a bit of a drug habit. Narrator Jamie, a rugby player and aspiring writer, is nevertheless intrigued by Charlotte’s prickly persona. When a student they both disliked is killed a la speckled band — as in one of their ancestors’ most famous cases — Charlotte enlists Jamie’s help to solve the crime before the police put them in jail. But the wily killer isn’t finished yet, and an attack on another student again points to Holmes and Watson. Is there a member of the Moriarty crime family lurking nearby?

Cavallaro knows the Arthur Canon Doyle canon, and everything about this first novel — plot, pace, writing — is witty and assured. Charlotte and Jamie both have issues with their respective families, roommates and teachers, and they are credible teens with just the right amount of ambition, angst and attitude. A Study in Charlotte is the first in a trilogy, so expect to see more Holmes and Watson adventures before too long. Meanwhile, the publisher has put up a classy promotional trailer on YouTube. You can check it out here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjIJFW8Uetw

 

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blackrabbitA spooky old house. Skeletons in the attic. Ghosts on the stairs. Two first-time novelists have gone gothic. I am so there.

Two young women’s family secrets intertwine in Eve Chase’s atmospheric Black Rabbit Hall (Putnam, digital galley). London schoolteacher Lorna Dunaway wants to hold her upcoming wedding in picturesque Cornwall, where her family vacationed when she was a child. Pencraw Hall calls out to her from a website, but its reality is altogether different. Black Rabbit Hall, as the locals call it, is sadly neglected, with ivy tugging on its crumbling walls, flowers pushing up from the floorboards, rainwater dripping from holes in the ceiling. Still, the elderly woman hovering over the premises tells Lorna it could be a charming venue and suggests she stay a couple of days.

Readers already know via an alternating storyline that Black Rabbit Hall was once the happy summer home of the Alton family. But in 1969, mother Nancy was killed in a riding accident, and the magical, carefree days ended for her grief-stricken husband and four children. Teenage Amber tries to cope with her angry twin Toby, young rascal Barney and baby sister Kitty, but things worsen when her father remarries an old friend Caroline, with a smile “like a paper cut” and an enigmatic teenage son Lucian. The stage is set for further tragedy, including forbidden love and treacherous lies.

Chase’s writing is seductive as she moves between Lorna learning about Black Rabbit Hall’s history and Amber living that very past. That the two story lines will merge is inevitable, but Chase keeps readers in suspense. If you like Kate Morton’s novels, book a trip to Black Rabbit Hall.

evangelineI have some reservations about Hester Young’s busy The Gates of Evangeline (Putnam, review copy), which oozes Southern gothic with its Louisiana plantation, abandoned sugar mill and ominous, gator-filled swamps. Narrator Charlotte “Charlie” Cates is a divorced journalist who, after the death of her four-year-old son from a brain aneurysm, has disturbing, strangely prescient dreams about young children needing her help. One such dream features a little boy in a boat adrift on a bayou, and when she arrives at the historic Evangeline plantation to research a true crime book, Charlie immediately recognizes the place. Could the little boy be young Gabriel Deveau, who disappeared from his bedroom in 1982 and was never seen again? Charlie  immediately plunges into the family mystery, asking questions of ailing matriarch Hettie, secretive son Andre, his conniving sisters, and various members of the household — the too-handsome estate manager, the friendly young cook, and a visiting landscaper. She makes friends with the local sheriff and his wife, who are also grieving a child’s loss.

All this is well and good, and Young makes Charlie’s visions believable. Her often irrational behavior is another thing. She falls into bed and in love with a man with whom she has little in common and knows little about. She tackles witnesses head-on, leaps to conclusions and walks into traps. She’s also an elitist snob, constantly comparing her Northern lifestyle and sophistication to the uneducated Southern rubes she’s dealing with. This is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy, but I’m not sure I’d read a second unless Young quits condescending to readers and her characters with unneeded snippets of  “dem and dose” dialect. Shame on her and her editor.

Open Book: I want to note that The Gates of Evangeline is a winter selection of the She Reads online book club, http://www.shereads.org. The web site is a great resource for readers and features reviews, author interviews, Q & As,  and recommendations in a blog-post format. I’ve been an e-mail subscriber for five years now, receiving the posts by founders and authors Ariel Lawhon and Marybeth Whalen several times a week. I also recently joined the She Reads Blog Network, a group of book bloggers who review She Reads selections on their individual sites from time to time and link to She Reads. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this literary community. Check it out!

 

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oppositeTrust me: You want Paula Vauss on your side. The formidable Atlanta divorce lawyer eats other lawyers for lunch as she wages war on their clients. Her tongue is as sharp as her black stilettos, their “blood-red soles promising all sorts of carnage.”

The narrator of Joshilyn Jackson’s layered new novel, The Opposite of Everyone (HarperCollins, digital galley), is battle-hardened. The mixed-race daughter of a free-spirited white mother, Paula moved from place-to-place in the South as a child, until one of her mom Kai’s drug-dealing boyfriends got busted. Kai went to jail and Paula — whom Kai called Kali after the Hindu goddess — ended up in the foster-care system. Then a betrayal led to a long estrangement, and Paula assuages her guilt by sending monthly checks to an address in Texas. When a check is returned along with a cryptic note, and a young man with Kai’s green eyes turns up on Paula’s door, her past converges with her present. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, a troubled private detective, Paula begins the search for Kai and the family secrets that will change everything.

An accomplished novelist (A Grown Up Kind of Pretty, Someone Else’s Love Story), Jackson has a gift for creating quirky, memorable characters in unexpected situations. Here she weaves riveting scenes of young Paula’s experiences in a group home with her adult struggle to remain independent yet not withhold her heart. The judgmental lawyer learns that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are not the whole stories, and truth comes with forgiveness. Trust me: The Opposite of Everyone is a story you’ll want to read.

onlyloveIf you’re a fan of Neil Young’s music and the novels of Southern storytellers like Pat Conroy and David Payne, and if you don’t let nostalgia and familiarity get in the way of your reading pleasure, than Ed Tarkington’s first novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Algonquin, digital galley) is your kind of book. Tarkington darkens his coming-of-age tale with elements of Southern gothic, but the whole is burnished by a sense of place and family.

The place is the small town of Spencerville, Va., in the mid-1970s and 1980s. The family is the Askews — “the Old Man,” his younger second wife, his teenage son Paul from his first marriage, and younger son Rocky. It is Rocky, age 7 when the story begins, who narrates from the vantage point of middle age. Rocky worships 16-year-old Paul, whose long hair and cigarettes brand him as something of a rebel, and he likes nothing better than hanging out with Paul and his pretty girlfriend, Leigh Bowman, listening to Young’s After the Goldrush. Rocky’s on hand when Paul trespasses on the big house up the hill and is shot and wounded by the house’s wealthy new owner Brad Culvert. But he’s left behind when Paul later runs away with Leigh and disappears. Leigh eventually returns, mentally unstable, but Paul is apparently gone for good.

And so Rocky becomes a teenager, his knowledge of life and love helped by his friendship with fragile Leigh and his relationship with Culvert’s daughter Patricia, who extends his duties as the stableboy to assignations in the hayloft. A double murder coincides with Paul’s long-awaited return to reckon with his father, felled by a stroke. Long-held family secrets come to light. Rocky grows up.

Tarkington writes beautifully, and the pages flow. As the title reminds us, only love can break your heart, but as Tarkington tells it, love is also what mends the broken pieces.

 

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WatchmanSo, you say you are disappointed and disillusioned to learn that the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s newly published book is a racist? Imagine then that you are his daughter Jean Louise, aka Scout, discovering that the father you have worshiped for 26 years has feet of clay.

But you don’t have to walk around in her skin, imagining the consternation, devastation and anger of such a betrayal. Lee does it for you in Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), an unsettling portrait of a young woman going home to the South of the mid-1950s and finding it’s not “the warm and comfortable world” she remembers.  Of course, that small-town Alabama of Scout’s childhood is what Lee so splendidly evoked in her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman, written several years before Mockingbird, is a more conventional coming-of-age story that was rejected by publishers until editor Tay Hohoff suggested that Lee set it 20 years earlier and rewrite it from young Scout’s perspective.

Speculation has it that Hohoff may have wanted the changes to make the book more palatable to a wider audience, and thus more saleable. Could be, but I contend that she saw in Watchman’s awkwardly structured series of set pieces what Mockingbird could be. For that, we should all be grateful. Although there is much that is familiar about Watchman — descriptions of places and people, a certain tone and turn of phrase — it is a separate book, not a sequel or prequel, written in the third person. The two books share the main characters of Scout, Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack, but Jem and Dill appear only in flashbacks, Calpurnia has retired except for one pivotal scene, there is no Boo Radley. Tom Robinson’s trial, the centerpiece of Mockingbird, is a couple of paragraphs with a different outcome. Henry Clinton is the major new character. A young lawyer taken under Atticus’ wing, he is Scout’s longtime friend and possible future husband.

The plot, such as it is, meanders over the the first three days of Jean Louise’s visit and her not fitting in. The old house, with its wide porch and chinaberry trees, has been torn down and replaced by an ice cream parlor. A “morning coffee” given by corseted Aunt Alexandra and attended by perfumed ladies fills Jean Louise with horror and despair. But her seeing Atticus and Henry at a white citizen’s council meeting condoning a segregationist’s hate speech is what guts her, leading to confrontations with both men, a follow-up with Uncle Jack and a hard reckoning with herself.

This then is very much Jean Louise’s story. In Mockingbird, she is the narrator and Atticus the hero, the book’s moral compass and conscience. In this book, her world is rocked when her conscience parts company with his. Although it was written in the 1950s and is obviously a period piece, its publication is remarkably timely as part of our ongoing national conversation about race. I disagree, though, that this is the book Lee meant to write and publish all along.

Much has always been made that To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t read like a first novel. It’s so all-of-a-piece, so assured. It’s been one of my favorite books since I was 10. That hasn’t changed upon many rereadings and I don’t expect it to. Go Set a Watchman is an unedited first novel, flawed and unsubtle. Promising.

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