First Novelists Bivald, Hallberg, Holleman, McCrea, Watkins, & others | Debut Fiction, August 2015

redstarBaker, David. Vintage. Touchstone. Sept. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781501112515. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781501112553. F

Food journalist Bruno ­Tannenbaum’s life is spinning out of control. The author of a successful novel and a collection of essays, Twenty Recipes for Love (selections of which delightfully introduce each chapter), is separated from his wife and two daughters, has worn out his welcome at his favorite restaurants, and loses his job as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. What to do? Writing a blog is out of the question; he loathes new technology, especially anything that speeds up meals or allows just anyone to write a restaurant review. But then he stumbles upon clues that may lead to a lost vintage wine, apparently shipped out of France by the Nazis during World War II. Does Bruno have a new book in him and is this it? ­VERDICT Baker gets his spellbinding debut off to a rousing start with a great setup and an endearing protagonist, a bon vivant who rambles from Chicago to France, Germany, eastern Europe, and Moscow, enjoying fantastic meals and drinks along the way, as he searches for the lost wine—and, just maybe, for himself. A feast for all readers, with a warning only to those on a diet!—Ron Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson

redstarBartsch, Jeff. Two Across. Grand Central. Aug. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781455554621. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781455554607. F

Bartsch’s first novel opens at a 1960 spelling bee at a Washington, DC hotel, where we meet Vera Baxter and Stanley Owens, brilliantly fierce competitors in the national championship. In a rare occurrence, they tie for the win, a turn that bonds them over the course of years to come. Stanley and Vera have similarly awkward upbringings: Stanley lives in the hotel hosting the competition with his agoraphobic mother. Vera also resides in various hotels with her single mother, who travels while pursuing a burgeoning sales career. The young people’s lives continue to intersect as they grow up, though they have different paths and goals. Once Stanley decides he needs Vera to accomplish his ambitions, their relationship becomes increasingly muddled. Stanley’s lifelong interest in solving and creating crossword puzzles leads the two of them into a complex mode of communication over the next several years. VERDICT This nerd-meets-nerd love story reflects the complexity and depth of human relations. Not for fans of easy-flowing romances; this is full of struggles, melancholy, heartbreak, and introspection. It makes a wonderful book club read: the trials of Vera and Stanley are well worth plumbing for dynamic discussion. [See Prepub Alert, 2/9/15.]—Julie Kane, formerly with Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA

redstarBivald, Katarina. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. Sourcebooks Landmark. Jan. 2016. 400p. tr. from Swedish by Alice Menzies. ISBN 9781492623441. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492623458. F

readersofbrokenwheel73015As luck would have it, the day Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, IA, from Sweden to meet her book-loving pen pal Amy, the townsfolk are just leaving Amy’s funeral. Tourists are rare in this tiny, depressed town and the residents gather around Sara, sharing their stories of their departed friend. Sara stays in Amy’s house, surrounded by her huge collection of books, and is comforted by the warmth of this quirky community. There’s not much to do and Sara has little drawing her back to Sweden, so she decides to take Amy’s books and open a cozy bookstore in a derelict downtown storefront. With little money to buy books, Sara simply begins sharing Amy’s books with her friends. Gradually, the good citizens of Broken Wheel realize that a bookstore and Sara are what they need. How they go about ensuring that Sara can stay and the store can thrive is at the core of this heartwarming and utterly charming debut novel by Swedish author Bivald. VERDICT This gentle, intelligent Midwestern tale will captivate fans of Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, and Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. ­Fikry. An ideal book group selection, it reminds us why we are book lovers and why it’s nice to read a few happy endings.—Susan Clifford Braun, Bainbridge Island, WA

Childress, Ron. And West Is West. Algonquin. Oct. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781616205232. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616205393. F

This strong first novel intermingles the stories of three people starting over after failures for which they were not to blame. Ethan is a Wall Street quant whose career is destroyed as a result of a misplaced decimal point in his code and a coworker’s treachery. Jessica is a drone pilot discharged from the air force after a failed mission to take out a terrorist leader. In contrast, Ethan’s friend (and sometimes girlfriend) Zoe is undone, not by technology, but by learning the truth of her parentage and by her disastrous affair with her boss. After Zoe drowns—possibly an accident, possibly a suicide—the emotionally distraught Ethan is driven to take her ashes to the father she never knew, who’s serving time in a Florida prison for murder. Jessica, meanwhile, struggles with the aftermath of her discharge while eluding a pair of FBI agents on an assignment to make sure she doesn’t take her knowledge of the failed drone strike to the press. ­VERDICT Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this powerful and morally chilling tale depicts the chasm modern technology can create between actions and consequences—and the effects that has on the individuals carrying out the actions. [See Prepub Alert, 4/6/15.]—Lawrence ­Rungren, Andover, MA

redstarDickinson, Seth. The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Tor. Sept. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9780765380722. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466875128. FANTASY

After her island nation is conquered by forces from the Empire of Masks and one of her two fathers is killed, Baru Cormorant bottles up her grief and hate and joins the Masquerade civil service. Even as she succeeds in her schooling and service exams, she watches her native culture get demolished by the invaders. Despite her high test scores, Baru is not sent to the capital but is instead posted as the new Imperial Accountant to distant Aurdwynn, a land in perpetual rebellion. She navigates the dangerous political waters of her new northern home, while always plotting her next move against the Masquerade. VERDICT This is an accomplished debut, with a heroine whose motives are murky, seemingly even to herself. The twists and turns our unreliable narrator takes as she pushes the Aurdwynn nobles to rebel reveal her goals yet also expose her loneliness. We’ve only seen a fraction of the world of the Masquerade and a glimpse of Baru’s plans, setting the stage for a compelling series.—MM

redstarFortunato, John. Dark Reservations. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781250074195. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466885837. M

Set in the Southwest, this debut mystery and winner of the Tony ­Hillerman Prize follows Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent Joe Evers, who is investigating what he thinks will be his final case before his forced retirement. When he’s partnered with Navajo Tribal Officer Randal ­Bluehorse, they investigate the case of missing Congressman Arden Edgerton, who disappeared 20 years ago. His bullet-riddled car has turned up on the reservation, and Evers and Bluehorse are left to unlock the mystery. Following the clues, they find links to the black market trade in Native American artifacts. Solving the case requires strength and fortitude from Evers, who must face down demons from both his past and present life. VERDICT ­Fortunato spins an intricate tale, overlaying multiple story lines with a galaxy of characters, some of whom have much to hide. Readers who relish mysteries against the backdrop of the Southwest and who are fans of Tony and Anne Hillerman will savor this page-turner.—Patricia Ann Owens, formerly with Illinois Eastern Community Colls., Mt. Carmel

redstarHallberg, Garth Risk. City on Fire. Knopf. Oct. 2015. 944p. ISBN 9780385353779. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780385353786. F

cityonfire73015This epic, well-written, and highly entertaining first novel is set in New York City from around Christmas 1976 to the blackout of July 1977. Years earlier, wealthy widower William Hamilton-Sweeney had become engaged to a woman whose wheeler-dealer brother takes over the family’s business empire and pushes aside William’s children, Regan and William III. By late 1976, ­Regan is separated from her husband, while her brother has emerged from the Sixties with a heroin habit and is alienated from the entire family. He’s also pursuing a relationship with Mercer Goodman, an intelligent young black man from Georgia. Meanwhile, remnants of the band William once belonged to have holed up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and are plotting some kind of a revolution, possibly violent. Lost souls attracted to the band include Charlie Weisbarger and Samantha Cicciaro, both of whom are central to several of the plot threads interwoven within these many pages. It all comes together or unravels on the wild, riotous night of the blackout, probably one of the low points in recent New York City history and vividly depicted in a suitable denouement for this anticipated blockbuster of a novel. VERDICT Throughout, Hallberg expertly handles the multiple shifts in perspective, vibrantly portraying a specific time and place and creating memorable characters—especially Charlie and Regan, a complicated mess of a poor little rich girl who manages to be heroic in her own way—all wandering the vast, ongoing American dreamscape that is New York City. [See Prepub Alert, 4/13/15.]—James Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.

Hart, Elsa. Jade Dragon Mountain. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781250072320. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466883918. M

This riveting story of 18th-century Imperial China marks a promising start for first novelist Hart. Disgraced librarian Li Du lives as a wandering scholar after being exiled for associating with enemies of the emperor. On one of his many travels he passes through the town of Dayan and is required to report to his cousin Tulishen, the local magistrate. His visit coincides with a major festival honoring the emperor and his divine ability to predict eclipses. As Dayan prepares to receive the royal entourage, a visiting Jesuit astronomer is found murdered, and Li Du becomes involved in uncovering the killer. Matters are complicated by a fraught political and cultural environment that makes it difficult to investigate. There are plenty of false clues and gratifying twists before things are wrapped up satisfyingly. Excellent writing and the charming stories of traveling storyteller Hamza further elevate this novel above the typical historical suspense. VERDICT The mix of history, thriller, and layers of storytelling make for a complex and rewarding novel that deserves a wide readership. A fine debut for an author with more books, one hopes, to come.[See Prepub Alert, 3/23/15.]—Liz Kirchhoff, ­Barrington Area Lib., IL

redstarHolleman, Emily. Cleopatra’s Shadows. Little, Brown. Oct. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780316382984. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316383004. F

Although Cleopatra, daughter of King Ptolemy of Egypt, is easily one of the most famous women of the ancient world, the names of her two half-sisters have been almost lost to antiquity. Breathing new life into these historical personalities, first-time novelist Holleman has written a marvelous story of the two years when Berenice, the older sister, ruled Egypt while Cleopatra and her father were in Rome pleading for aid in taking back the Egyptian throne. The account of Berenice and her youngest sister Arsinoe are narrated in alternating chapters from their own points of view. While Berenice fights to maintain her hold on the throne as the first queen to rule Egypt alone in centuries, eight-year-old Arsinoe struggles to survive two bloody coups. Though both sisters are equally fascinating, Arsinoe is the one readers will identify with most as she deals with being abandoned by her beloved Cleopatra and surviving Berenice’s ascendancy to the ultimate (and very bloody) return of the king. VERDICT ­Holleman offers a fresh take on the Ptolemy dynasty and has delivered what promises to be just the first in a exciting series about Arsinoe, youngest sister of Cleopatra. [See Prepub Alert, 4/27/15.]— Jane Henriksen Baird, ­Anchorage P.L., AK

Hood, Joshua. Clear by Fire: A Search and Destroy Thriller. Touchstone. Aug. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781501105715. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501105739. F

In what is the start of a promising new series, Mason Kane is a member of a clandestine military squad called the Anvil Program, “a group of black ops soldiers who wage war from the shadows.” Ordered to kill an innocent Afghan family by his leader Captain Barnes, Kane refuses and ends up on the run. While Kane is evading his former unit, Barnes has become more erratic and dangerous. Renee Hart, a special ops agent, is assigned to find Barnes and eliminate him. She enlists the aid of Kane to achieve this mission. VERDICT Debut author Hood, a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, includes the necessary elements for a good military thriller—lots of weapons, a strong hero (and heroine), and villains galore. One distinctive facet of the series is that it has an African American man as the protagonist. Genre lovers will enjoy discovering a talented new author.—Deb West, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA

McCrea, Gavin. Mrs. Engels. Catapult. Oct. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781936787296. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781936787302. F

Former Manchester mill worker Lizzie Burns has moved into a London townhouse with her lover, political theorist Frederick Engels, as he continues his job of organizing the working classes with Karl Marx. This is Lizzie’s first experience running a “proper” household—managing servants, placating the Marxes, and entertaining dissidents from around Europe. All the while, she remains Engels’s most loyal helpmate, even as she outlines his past romantic relationship with her late sister, Mary, and her own former love, an Irish nationalist. Through Lizzie’s singular perspective, peppered with her wry observations, readers are treated to a backstage look at the domestic lives of the most public 19th-century revolutionaries and their families. While Lizzie’s story exists only marginally in the historical record, first-time novelist McCrea brings her to life in this soulful work. ­VERDICT Lizzie’s distinctive working-class Irish spin on the foibles of upper-crust London society is at once biting and humorous, and Dublin-born world traveler ­McCrea is a new author to follow for those who enjoy potential Man Booker Prize longlisters. It is a pity that the full biography of the Burns sisters may never be told in nonfiction, yet readers will feel that McCrea has done them justice here.—Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston ­Community Coll. Northeast

Singer, P.W. & August Cole. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. Houghton Harcourt. 2015. 416p. notes. ISBN 9780544142848. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780544145979. F

Making their fiction debut, 21st-century warfare expert Singer (Wired for War) and Cole, a former Wall Street Journal defense industry reporter, bring an original approach to the military technothriller. In this near-future tale about a joint simultaneous attack on the United States by Russia and China, the authors describe all aspects of war from air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. The action moves constantly from seats of government to a retired World War II ship stationed in the Pacific. The blending of modern capabilities with old skills is effectively demonstrated by the newly appointed Commander Simmons in the unenviable position of managing an old ship that includes his father as one of the crew. VERDICT Enthusiastically recommended for fans of speculative fiction and war strategy. The authors provide extensive endnotes that support their chilling predictions. [See Kristi Chadwick’s Mystery Spotlight, “Not Your Usual Suspects,” LJ 4/15/15.—Ed.]—Deb West, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA

redstarWatkins, Claire Vaye. Gold Fame Citrus. Riverhead. Sept. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781594634239. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698195943. F

goldfamecitrus73015In a not-too-distant future, the nation is in the grip of an ecological disaster. Plagued by severe water shortages, the residents of California (already dwindling in number) are subjected to a forced evacuation. Luz, a former model who spent her childhood as the government’s poster child for the oncoming crisis, is hiding out in a starlet’s abandoned mansion in Laurel Canyon with her competent companion Ray, who has recently gone AWOL from the U.S. military. After rescuing, or possibly kidnapping, a neglected toddler from a criminal gang, they attempt to flee the lawless frontier for what they hope will be greener pastures inland. When their plans fall apart, Luz comes under the sway of the charismatic leader of an outpost in the desert, who, like many so-called prophets, might not be what he seems. In her powerful depictions of the scorched and merciless landscape, Watkins realizes a genuine nostalgia for our lost living world, and the American West in particular. VERDICT This debut novel (after Watkins’s multiaward-winning story collection, Battleborn) follows a recent spate of similarly disturbing ecodystopias. Yet, with its damaged and complicated heroine and multiple voices, shifting perspectives, and unconventional narrative devices, it is a wholly original work. [See Prepub Alert, 4/13/15.]—Lauren Gilbert, ­Sachem P.L., Holbrook, NY

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