I’m not a political person, proclaimed Stephen Dau at the packed Public Library Association panel Meet This Season’s Best in Debut Authors, a new event initiated by Penguin library rep Alan Walker, to whom we can all be grateful. At first, it seemed like a surprising assertion, as his debut, The Book of Jonas, features a 15-year-old in an unnamed Muslim country orphaned when American troops decimate his village. But as Dau went on to explain, his real aim was to speak hopefully of individual responsibility, particularly in the face of daunting moral choice. It was a theme common to all four books featured on the panel, which would make them especially good book club selections. Here’s a rundown of the titles, which I was fortunate enough to introduce.
Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat. April 2012. Regan Arthur Bks: Little, Brown.
As Rogan commented, the lifeboat is an apt metaphor for our troubled world today, which makes her book an especially bracing read. It sets sail in the early 1900s, when a ship traveling from England to New York is sent to the ocean bottom by a fire‚ but not before Henry has managed to shove new bride Grace into a lifeboat and then vanish in the crowd. Unsentimental and even a bit of a go-getter, Grace is already the survivor of family tragedy, and the dead-on account of her ordeal will leave readers as shivering and conflicted as the lifeboat passengers themselves.
The book has two sources‚ the author’s growing up in a family of competitive sailors and a law case dating to 1841 concerning the Custom of the Sea, which included using lotteries to determine the fate of survivors on an overcrowded boat. Sometimes, it seemed, the weakest always got the short (and unlucky) stick in that draw, and the 1841 case involved charges of murder, which surface here, too. Yes, Grace’s lifeboat is carrying too many passengers, and for some to live, others must die. Would one kill in order to live or consent to die so that others can go on? The challenge to the reader’s conscience is as stinging as it is inevitable.
Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home. April 2012. Morrow.
Though Cash was not raised among the wide-eyed snake-handling true believers at River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following featured in his first book, he was raised Southern Baptist, which helps to explain the sensitivity of his debut novel in both tone and content. With deft musicality and a pitch-perfect ear, he tells the story of small-town tragedy and complicity in three different voices. First, there’s Jess, a precocious boy who watches over his mute older brother, Stump, witness to something he should not have seen and subject to creepy Pastor Chambliss’s efforts to wrestle the demon out of him.
Then there’s upright, no-nonsense Adelaide, midwife in this tiny North Carolina town and brave enough to stand up to Chambliss; and Sheriff Clem Barefield, who says people out in these parts can take hold of religion like it’s a drug and who must in the end deal with the terrible consequences, even as he deals with his own sorry past. Never condescending to his characters, Cash (utterly sincere but very funny in person) explores the power of faith for good and for evil.
Kira Peikoff, Living Proof. February 2012. Tor Books.
It’s 2027, and the Department of Embryo Preservation (DEP) zealously oversees fertility clinics; if the destruction of a single embryo is discovered, if there’s even a hint of something as egregious as stem cell research, the doctor is charged with first-degree murder. Sound implausible? A quick look at the news today says that it’s not. In fact, Peikoff, a journalist writing for venues like Newsday and New York magazine, was inspired to write this book after covering President George W. Bush’s veto of funding for stem cell research.
At the panel, Peikoff spoke passionately about the importance of such research, pointing to recent advances it has prompted that restored sight to two legally blind women‚ especially telling to Peikoff, who recently came close to losing the sight in one eye. Her heroine, fertility specialist Arianna Drake, also has personal as well as science-based reasons for conducting her illegal research. The story is at once a thriller (a DEP agent goes undercover to uncover Drake’s suspected illegality), a love story (what about that DEP agent?), and a completely accessible discussion of both the scientific and the moral issues involved.
Stephen Dau, The Book of Jonas. March 2012. Blue Rider: Penguin Group (USA).
Dau has worked in postwar reconstruction and international development, including time spent in Sarajevo, so he understands the consequences of war for everyone involved. He was inspired to write this book when, back in 2003, he heard President George W. Bush respond to a question about civilian deaths in Iraq by saying offhandedly, around 30,000, as if it were a bowling score. Dau felt compelled to tell their stories, which he does here by focusing on 15-year-old Younis, who escapes the slaughter in his village with the help of an American soldier named Christopher.
Why did Christopher save Younis? And what happened to Christopher? These are pieces of a puzzle that comes together affectingly even as Younis‚ now called Jonas, seemingly well adjusted and living in America‚ starts coming apart. In the end, we see that both Christopher and Younis/Jonas have faced choices and taken responsibilities we can’t imagine. Brave, heartrending, and expertly written‚ and featuring three libraries, something the author didn’t even realize until after he was done‚ this book is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and maybe a pick in your library, too.