First Novelists Bailey, Barnett, Buwalda, Clanchy, Metcalf, Zourkova & Others | Debut Fiction, December 2014

Arlen, Tessa. Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250052490. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466854277. M

Readers of this debut set in Edwardian England will feel as though they’ve stepped into an episode of Downton Abbey, complete with murder and intrigue upstairs and downstairs. Lady Montfort’s annual summer costume ball is the social event of the season. Planned in minute detail by Lady Montfort and dependable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson, the party is proclaimed a huge success until the next morning when Lord Montfort’s troublesome nephew, Teddy, is murdered. A new servant girl and a headstrong young female guest have gone missing, too. Fearing her son may become a suspect after observing him fighting with Teddy the day before, Lady Montfort does some sleuthing with the help of Mrs. Jackson, and their investigation reveals dark secrets. VERDICT Incorporating exquisite period detail into her well-mannered mystery, Arlen offers readers an engaging peek into the lives of upper and lower classes of early 1900s England combined with a little history interspersed. Historical mystery fans who want to know more about the period may wish to check out the author’s Redoubtable Edwardians blog ­ (tessaarlen.com/redoubtable-edwardian), which features articles about some of the colorful eccentrics of the era.—Melissa DeWild, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI

redstarBailey, Martine. An Appetite for Violets. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781250056917. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466860711. F

appetiteforviolets121514Biddy Leigh, a poor fatherless cottager, has reached the pinnacle of happiness in life as undercook at Mawton Hall with marriage to the handsome Jem in her future, but her plans go awry with the unexpected arrival of Lady Carinna, the absent old master’s very young, very demanding new wife. Not only is Lady Carinna impetuous and imperious, she is also abruptly seized with a sudden desire to travel to her uncle’s estate in Italy and insists on Biddy’s accompanying her, plunging that unflappable young lady into mysteries and adventures that challenge her to the utmost of her considerably resourceful nature. As we follow Biddy and her companions on their continental travels, we are treated to her gastronomic journal filled with sensual and revealing details. VERDICT Debut novelist (and award-­winning amateur cook) Bailey whips up a tasty confection of history, mystery, and intrigue. Fans of such 18th-century writers as James Boswell, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson will savor this delicious read. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]— Cynthia Johnson, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA

redstarBarnett, LaShonda Katrice. Jam on the Vine. Grove. Feb. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780802123343. $26.50; ebk. ISBN 9780802191571. F

jamonthevine121514Inspired by her own grandmother’s news­paper-reading habit to write about the role of the black press in post–Civil War history, the author modeled her main protagonist, Ivoe Williams, on the famous African American journalist Ida B. Wells (1862–1931). Barnett richly reimagines Wells’s life through Ivoe’s experiences, starting with her family and her community’s nurturing of her early love of newspapers; a clear talent for reading and writing; and the inner strength necessary to overcome racial and gender barriers. In language both poetic and down-to-earth, the novel details Ivoe’s family members’ lives—punctuated by episodes of racism and violence—as Ivoe struggles to establish her uncommon career, aided by her mentor and printing teacher from college, Miss Ona Durden. VERDICT This compelling work of historical fiction about a black female journalist escaping Jim Crow laws of the South and fighting injustice in Kansas City, MO, through her reportage, will bring wider recognition to the role of the African American press in American history, especially during 1919’s Red Summer of lynchings and race rioting in northern cities. [See Prepub Alert, 8/11/14; 11-city tour.]—Laurie Cavanaugh, Holmes P.L., Halifax, MA

Beckerman, Hannah. The Dead Wife’s Handbook. Arcade: Skyhorse. Jan. 2015. 496p. ISBN 9781628724509. $24.95. F

Beckerman’s debut novel follows the afterlife of Rachel, a 36-year-old whose untimely death rocks the world of her husband, Max, and six-year-old daughter, ­Ellie. Residing in a hellish purgatory of sorts, Rachel is occasionally given glimpses of the world below, similar to Susie Salmon watching her family in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Time in Rachel’s world moves at the same speed as Max and Ellie’s, but her peeks are sometimes hours, weeks, or even months apart. The time between is passed alone, filled with contemplation and often misery, surrounded by complete emptiness. She watches as her family and friends respond to the initial shock of her death and then begin to move on. Everything from her daughter’s grief-stricken tantrums to her husband inviting a new woman into what used to be their marriage bed is described in painstaking detail. Rachel travels through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief as she comes to terms with her death and the continuation of life on Earth. VERDICT This painful yet thought-provoking read is emotionally draining at best and recommended for people who enjoy a good cry.—­Chelsie Harris, San Diego Cty. Lib.

Bolouri, Joanna. The List. Quercus. Jan. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781623659943. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781623658700. F

Bolouri’s debut is a cross between the edgier fare of new adult fiction and the tried and true of chick lit. A year after breaking up with handsome Alex, Phoebe Henderson is still struggling. She’s single and has a great group of friends but hasn’t yet given up on the man she thought was the one, even though she caught him in bed with another woman. Her friends urge her to move on, so as a New Year’s resolution she makes a list. Her goal is to get beyond her vanilla sex life and become the kind of woman who is open to adventure, sexually speaking. The only problem? She needs a man to help her check off the items on her list. Who better than her best friend, Oliver? They’ve been friends since high school and Phoebe knows that she can trust him, so why not engage in some no-strings sex with the man she trusts most? But what starts out as a fun, sexy decision becomes complicated by the very real feelings Phoebe and Oliver have. VERDICT Many of the traditional chick-lit tropes are present here, but ­Bolouri has a fresh voice and Phoebe’s journey of sexual discovery is both laugh-out-loud funny and touching. This is chick lit with a Sex and the City vibe.—Jane Jorgenson, Madison P.L., WI

Brissett, Jennifer Marie. Elysium. Aqueduct. Dec. 2014. 208p. ISBN 9781619760530. pap. $18. SF

The main character of this first novel is Adrianne, except when it is Adrian. She/he moves through life with the same people around her/him, although they also randomly change gender and roles in her world. She/he loves and loses Antoine/Antoinette, is friends or lovers with Hector/Helen, lives in a modern city or a dystopian wasteland. And there is a mysterious computer code that interrupts her/his life, resetting the players and changing the setting, with each permutation of the world growing darker and more in need of saving. VERDICT The novel’s unsettling and unusual structure works because Brissett skillfully seeds symbols and repeats elements to carry the reader through each version of the world. Just as the heroine/hero slowly comes to realize what is happening to the world, so, too, does the reader. It will inevitably bring the movie The Matrix to mind; this is a weird, however, original play on reality.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

redstarBuwalda, Peter. Bonita Avenue. Hogarth: Crown. Jan. 2015. 544p. tr. from Dutch by Jonathan Reeder. ISBN 9780553417852. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780553417869. F

bonitaavenue121514Siem Sigerius is a first-class judoka, a genius mathematician, a jazz aficionado, and head of Tubantia University. Life is good in the spacious farmhouse he shares with his furniture-maker wife, Tineke, and her two teenage daughters, Joni and Janis, until an explosion at a fireworks factory brings to light secrets that send Siem and those around him on a hellish descent. Siem discovers the sex website of Joni and her photographer boyfriend, Aaron, under particularly ignoble circumstances, and the reemergence of convicted murderer Wilbert, Siem’s son from a previous marriage, doesn’t bode well for anyone. Guilt and fear rule the decisions the characters make, sending each further down the darkest of paths, as the narrative spins from the Netherlands to Los Angeles and Berkeley, CA. VERDICT Published in Buwalda’s native Holland in 2010, this award-winning debut novel is flat-out extraordinary. The rich layer of detail would be impressive when applied to one topic, but Buwalda creates multiple complex worlds around vastly different subjects: the porn industry, mathematics, music, and judo, among others. An outstanding literary suspense story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. [See Prepub Alert, 7/14/14.]—Joy Humphrey, ­Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA

Christie, Michael. If I Fall, If I Die. Hogarth: Crown.Jan. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780804140805. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780804140812. F

Will Cardiel and his mother are shut-ins, staying inside their house in a rural lakeside town in Canada because his mother has Will convinced that the outside world is fatally dangerous. One day, however, curiosity overcomes him, and he ventures out and meets another boy. Their brief encounter leads him to further exploration and interaction with other children, but the boy he first met has vanished. Prying himself further from his mother’s grip, Will enrolls in school and slowly tries to make sense of other human beings and the world, even as his mother’s tragic story is gradually revealed, Will’s search for his missing friend results in him meeting another boy, with whom he takes up skateboarding (debut novelist Christie was a professional skateboarder), and together they begin to uncover the dark side of the town. In the meantime, Will bravely pursues clues to his first friend’s disappearance despite threats from some local thugs, and his mother may actually have to leave the house to save him. VERDICT While vividly and imaginatively depicting the claustrophobic lifestyle of Will and his mother, this novel is somewhat of a slow starter. But with its many mysteries, it gathers momentum as it moves toward an exciting climax. [See Prepub Alert, 7/14/14.]—James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.

Clanchy, Kate. Meeting the English. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Mar. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250059772. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466865136. F

Meet the Pryses, London’s model family, circa 1989. The pater, Philip, is a literary lion who scored big with a play about life down in the Welsh mines, and then subsequently moved to Hampstead. A recent stroke has left him incapacitated. A former wife, an interior designer with designs on the Hampstead property, glides in and out of Philip’s life, measuring the curtains, and coffins. Their two offspring are both right rotters. Philip’s current trophy wife is Iranian, paints exquisite miniatures, and has a roving eye. Into this menagerie steps Struan Robertson, an upright, smart but naïve Scotsman who is hired to look after the invalid. After a full dose of the Pryse family, he might be excused for concluding: “Lord, what fools these Londoners be!” VERDICT Short-listed for 2013’s Costa First Novel Award, this sharp-eyed satire of 1980s London is hardly the work of a novice. Clanchy is an established poet who brings to her portrait of Thatcher-era London an assured beauty of language and acid detail. The effect is that of a brilliant, multicolored fireworks display illuminating the antics of the residents of the London Zoo. [See Prepub Alert, 9/15/14.]—Bob Lunn, Kansas City, MO

Costello, Mary. Academy Street. Farrar. Apr. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9780374100520. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780374712754. F

When Tess Lohan is seven, living on a 1950s western Ireland estate, her mother passes away, and a household once loving deteriorates into grim, resentful silences. For a time, Tess loses her voice, which enhances her capacity for quiet. Though she’s a gifted listener, Tess never discovers how to express the enormity of how and what she feels. This inward silence accompanies her to convent school; to Dublin, where she begins a nursing career; and in 1962 to the United States, where she falls in love with David, a handsome lawyer from Dublin. With him, Tess conceives Theo, a magical boy who will grow up fatherless and increasingly bitter toward his mother. While Tess’s gifts for feeling draw people to her, then pushes them away, her sad, lonely life is authentic and beautiful. VERDICT In this gemlike first novel, Costello shows her Irish roots; the imagery—light-filled absences, wells, birds—calls to mind Seamus Heaney’s poetry and her plot and characters Colm Tóibín’s brilliant Brooklyn. Throughout, the language is measured and clear, and Tess is ultimately accessible and credible to a wide range of readers.—John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman

Davis, Brooke. Lost & Found. Dutton. Jan. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780525954682. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698188433. F

lostandfound121514Seven-year-old Millie lost her father to cancer and is abandoned by her grieving mother in a department store. By chance Millie meets two other damaged and suffering souls: 87-year-old Karl the Touch Typist and 82-year-old Agatha Pantha, both of whom are coping very badly with the deaths of their long-term spouses. The story is told from their different viewpoints, as they feel compelled to leave their small town in western Australia and take a quirky trip across the desert. Unconventional characters and slapstick action are combined with heartbreaking moments in this fresh take on the shared humanity of loss and the possibility of redemption, making this title a moving and unforgettable read. VERDICT Australian author Davis’s debut animates characters with distinctive and fallible voices; Millie is wise beyond her years, while ­Agatha is limited by her obsession with aging. For all readers who have ever faced grief and felt that everyone else knows what they are doing and how to handle it. Mourning, grief, and the mystery of death will boost this book’s appeal, particularly to teens, and will generate lots of discussion points for book clubs. [See Prepub Alert, 7/21/14.]—Jan Marry, ­Williamsburg Regional Lib., VA

de Mariaffi, Elisabeth. The Devil You Know. Touchstone. Jan. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781476779089. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781476779102. F

Having lived half her life in the aftermath of a friend’s abduction and murder, twentysomething Evie Jones has learned to function in a constant state of paranoia—always looking over her shoulder and wondering if the things she sees are real or imagined. Working on a local newspaper during the crimes of real-life Canadian serial killer Paul Bernando, the young reporter finds herself covering the story and researching other unsolved cases. The assignment hits a little too close to home, and Evie’s compulsive behavior soon spirals out of control, as she obsessively tries to piece together the circumstances surrounding her friend’s murder. VERDICT The author (whose short story collection How To Get Along with Women was longlisted for the Giller Prize) expertly builds suspense throughout this character-driven debut novel. As it nears its climax, readers will dread turning the pages for fear of what comes next. Unfortunately, the promise of a spectacular conclusion isn’t fully fulfilled, but loose ends are tied up and Evie receives answers to many of her questions. The use of dialog without quotation marks creates an intimacy to the story­telling, but the unconventional style may be bothersome for some readers. Give this one to patrons who can’t get enough of creepy, psychological thrillers.—Vicki Briner, Westminster, CO

redstarGordon, Alex. Gideon. Harper Voyager. Jan. 2015. 432p. ISBN 9780061687372. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062091765. FANTASY

The death of her father sets ­Lauren Reardon on a collision course with a family legacy in this dark blend of fantasy and horror. Finding a strange book with a faded photograph tucked inside, Lauren realizes her father hid his past in a small, isolated Illinois town called Gideon. When she impulsively drives across the country to see Gideon for herself, she encounters hostile locals and the diabolical influence of long-dead Nicholas Blaine, who believes Lauren is the key to winning his way back to this world. VERDICT With the pacing of a thriller, this debut supernatural tale does a solid job of portraying the menace of small-town evil. While the demonic figure of Blaine is scary, the petty viciousness of the townsfolk is even more chilling. This will appeal to fans of ­books such as Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane or Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

Henderson, Randy. Finn Fancy Necromancy. Tor. Feb. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780765378088. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466859135. FANTASY

necromancy121514During his transfer back to the mortal plane, Finn Gramaraye is attacked, and the swap with the fae changeling is botched, leaving Finn without any helpful memories for the 25 years he was in exile. Only 15 when he was framed and convicted on charges of dark necromancy and sentenced to the Other Realm, Finn returns as a 40-year-old man with no real understanding of the modern world. He wants to patch things up with his family; however, the people who set him up are still out to get him—Finn just needs to figure out why. VERDICT Funny and exciting, this first novel does sport some rough edges, especially in the dialog. The family dynamics between Finn and his brothers are well done, and the author (winner of Writers of the Future’s 2014 Golden Pen Award) excellently shows Finn as an emotionally stunted teenager suddenly middle-aged and having to deal with the family and friends he left behind. A promising writer to watch.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

starred review starKhan, Ausma Zehanat. The Unquiet Dead. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781250055118. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466858312. M

In Toronto, Det. Esa Khattak and Sgt. Rachel Getty work for the community policing section and are called in when there may be a sensitive aspect to a case. Investigating the supposedly accidental death of Christopher Drayton, the two officers soon uncover details that lead them to believe the man may have actually been a Bosnian war criminal involved with the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. With a large Bosnian refugee community in Toronto, the case is especially touchy. Mysteriously threatening letters that appeared on the victim’s doorstep and the presence of a gold-digging fiancée add to the suspicion. As Khattak and Getty interview imams and neighbors and sort out what justice really means, they are forced to navigate the lingering effects of a horrible conflict and their own broken lives. VERDICT Flashbacks to the Bosnian War and glimpses into the personal tragedies of ­Khattak and Getty make this debut by a former law professor with a specialty in Balkan war crimes even more compelling and hauntingly powerful. Readers of international crime fiction will be most drawn to the story, but anyone looking for an intensely memorable mystery should put this book at the top of their list.—Melissa DeWild, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI

Metcalf, Ben. Against the Country. Random. Jan. 2015. 328p. ISBN 9781400062690. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812996531. F

againstcountry121514This debut from the former literary editor at Harper’s magazine is a descriptive diatribe requiring careful reading for full appreciation of its wit. The book tells the tale of a family that moves from suburban Illinois (“the town”) to rural Virginia (“the country”). Told through the first-person recollections of an unnamed son, this work is roughly poised as an ad hominem attack on “the country” in favor of “the town.” Criticism of a tyrannical and abusive father looms large in the narrative, though it is often leavened with some attempt at understanding. The institution of the rural school bus, the language of social workers, and the very landscape of “the country” are also taken to task. Besides being quite amusing, this book provides a potent examination of rural culture and of life in general. Of particular note is a chicken named ­Buttfucker, an evil black snake, and the descriptive notes on various dogs owned by the narrator’s family. VERDICT The recirculating structure and casual yet intensely cerebral nature of this book make an arresting though demanding read. Many will hate it, some may embrace it, a few will be marked by it; highly recommended for those who care. [See Prepub Alert, 7/14/14/]—Henry ­Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA

O’Flaherty, Dennis. King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment. Night Shade. Jan. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781597805513. pap. $15.99. SF

Although he usually works as a cracksman, sneaking into secure places and opening unbreakable safes, Liam McCool has agreed to work for the government to avoid going to prison. The Department of Public Safety has immense power in this alternative steampunk world, in which the United States has ceded the land west of the Mississippi to Russia and Lincoln was never assassinated. Unfortunately, the president hasn’t been seen in years, leaving Public Safety head Edwin Stanton and his fleet of automatons to rule the country through terror and intimidation. Liam doesn’t like being under Stanton’s thumb and teams up with intrepid reporter Becky Fox to take down his corrupt government. ­VERDICT While there are a lot of fun moments in this debut steampunk adventure from O’Flaherty (who has written extensively for the movies), it is overstuffed with New York gangs, Pennsylvania unions, Russian royals, a murder mystery, and even a budding romance.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

Repino, Robert. Mort(e). Soho. Jan. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781616954277. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616954284. F

This intriguing debut starts out as a simple pet’s-eye view tale; Sebastian is a neutered and declawed housecat who befriends a dog named Sheba. Into their world comes an army of giant ants, led by an omniscient queen intent on destroying humanity. Using tailored chemicals, the ant queen has caused animals to grow hands and to become larger, self-aware, and bipedal. As a result, most pets, including Sebastian, rise up and kill their masters, though the cat loses his friend Sheba in the resulting turmoil. Sebastian takes the ambiguous name Mort(e) and joins the war against humans. In an interesting twist on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Mort(e) becomes disillusioned with the revolution but is drawn back in because he learns that the ant queen doesn’t have the animals’ best interests at heart. Yearning to be reunited with Sheba, Mort(e) finally gets his wish as he becomes pivotal in the final battle between ants and humans.­­ ­VERDICT Animal Farm set in a postapocalyptic world based on interspecies rivalry rather than communism, with a little religion on the side, this imaginative story can be taken as a somewhat satirical examination of the role of the individual in society. Highly recommended.—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA

Ross, Loretta. Death & the Redheaded Woman: An Auction Block Mystery. Midnight Ink. Feb. 2015. 264p. ISBN 9780738743936. pap. $14.99. M

Wren Morgan works for Keystone and Sons Auctioneers in East Bledsoe Ferry, MO, appraising and preparing houses for auction. She’s come across some unusual things in her line of work, but finding a naked corpse in the old Campbell house is a first. While giving her statement at the police station, Wren meets private investigator and bounty hunter Death (pronounced Deeth) Bogart, who’s bringing in a skip. Soon Death and Wren are working together to find some missing jewels rumored to be hidden at the Campbell house. They’re not the only ones looking for the lost loot, though, and soon they’re being shot at and held captive. Ex-marine Death’s PTSD and damaged lungs make it difficult to thwart the thieves and protect Wren, yet he is determined to administer justice and get the girl. VERDICT While Ross’s debut looks like a cozy mystery on the surface, the off-color humor and a few sex scenes create a racier-than-average cozy. Death is meant to come off as a tough good guy with a heart and a sensitive side, but that depiction isn’t entirely successful. With a little more charm and wit this could have been a strong ­Evanovich read-alike.—Melissa DeWild, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI

redstarZourkova, Krassi. Wildalone. Morrow. Jan. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780062328021. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062328045. F

wildalone121514Zourkova infuses her first novel with atmosphere, lyrical language, Greek mythology, Bulgarian folklore, and the sharp stab of first love. Thea is a piano prodigy from Bulgaria beginning her freshman year at Princeton University. After a public concert performance, she draws the attention of several men on campus, A first-person point of view and a sense of the surreal places the reader firmly in Thea’s head as she tries to navigate an unfamiliar culture steeped in tradition: from dressing the part of a Princeton coed to the school’s exclusive eating clubs. She is also thrown by the unexpected intricacies and intimacies of American relationships; her feelings for two mysterious men are complicated by family secrets on all sides. Fantastical creatures, forest witches known as Samodivi, or Wildalones, weave a thread through the entire novel, leading Thea to a decision that has consequences far beyond anything she could have imagined. VERDICT Zourkova pulls off a balancing act that few debut authors manage: a clever, dark romance steeped in mystery, with a bittersweet thread of melancholy and keen sense of place. Fantasy and romance lovers, as well as those who liked Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin should enjoy this. [See Prepub Alert, 3/3/14.]—Charli Osborne, Oxford P.L., MI

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