Barbara’s Picks, May 2013: Really Big First Novels from Brkic, Bulawayo, and More

First novels: they’re the promise of a new voice, a new sensibility, and a new favorite author to follow. May 2013’s list is especially impressive, ranging in setting from Revolutionary America to 1899 New York to contemporary Africa. I couldn’t pick among them, so they’re all picks, worthy of special attention by serious readers.

Brkic, Courtney Angela. The First Rule of Swimming. Reagan Arthur Bks: Little, Brown. May 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780316217385. $25.99. LITERARY FICTION
Brkic’s a special writer whose works hit me right in the heart, and obviously others agree; her story collection, Stillness, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, a Chicago Tribune best book, a New York Times Notable Book, and a Whiting Award winner. So take a good look at her first novel, whose heroine must set out from New York from the remote Croatian island where she lives to find her free-spirited sister. Instead she uncovers some family darkness. In-house raves, too. 

Bulawayo, NoViolet. We Need New Names. Reagan Arthur Bks: Little, Brown. May 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780316230810. $24.99. LITERARY FICTION
The publisher’s big spring debut—after its big fall debut, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, a National Book Award nominee, so pay attention—vivifies ten-year-old Darling’s journey from Zimbabwe to America. Surviving by stealing guavas with her friends and recalling Before, when their fathers hadn’t left for jobs abroad after the paramilitary police destroyed their homes, Darling grasps at a chance to go live in America with an aunt. It’s not the promised land she had hoped. The author is a Caine Literary Prize winner and Stegner Fellow, and her book is being snatched up worldwide.

Cabot, Sally. Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard. Morrow. May 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780062241924. $26.99; eISBN 9780062241948. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
William Franklin may have been born in secret to father Benjamin Franklin’s mistress, but he grew up happy and benefited from his father’s rising fame as a scientist, writer, and political force. He even became royal governor of New Jersey—only to clash with his father as the Colonies rumbled toward Revolution; Williams remained a rock-solid Loyalist. Cabot apparently knows her history, and this reimagining of an intriguing and little-known story caught my eye—as did the 75,000-copy first printing.

Cheng, Bill. Southern Cross the Dog. Amistad: HarperCollins. May 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780062225009 $25.99; eISBN 9780062225030. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
Even before the library marketing folks at HarperCollins talked up this novel, I was intrigued by the story—twentyish Robert Chatham manages to survive the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 but still thinks he’s cursed, even as he’s pulled between tradition and a bright new future. Cheng is being called a rising literary star, and rumor has it that his feel for the Old South is extraordinary—never mind that he’s not been below the Mason-Dixon Line. Recommended for folks who love Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, and Amanda Coplin, author of the recently published The Orchardist.

Harms, Kelly. The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane. Thomas Dunne Bks: St. Martin’s. May 2013. 304p. ISBN 9781250011381. $24.99; eISBN 9781250022646. POP FICTION
Two things happen when HomeSweetHome network announces that the winner of its latest Free House Sweepstakes is Janine Brown of Cedar Falls, IA. Janey Brown, eager to escape the clawing world by hiding in her kitchen, despairs that one of her aunt’s nutty schemes has comes to fruition, while Nean Brown delightedly realizes that she has the means to escape a run of dead-end jobs and boyfriends. The two Janine Browns head to Christmas Cove, ME, for some surprising discoveries. Former editor and agent Harms seems to have picked up some tips from the best-selling commercial authors with whom she has worked; there’s big in-house enthusiasm for this debut, which is being pitched hard to book clubs.

Rindell, Suzanne. The Other Typist. Amy Einhorn Bks: Penguin Group (USA). May 2013. 368p. ISBN 9780399161469. $25.95. CD/Downloadable: Penguin Audio. POP FICTION
“The other typist” is Odalie, the mysterious, magnetic young woman who joins Rose Baker’s typing pool at a Lower East Side precinct in 1924 Manhattan. Lonely Rose, confused by the rapid changing mores as the Twenties roar along, is enthralled with the newcomer, but her admiration soon turns into threatening obsession. First novelist Rindell has published poetry and short fiction in places like Conjunctions and Nimrod, so she can write. With rights to six countries.

Wecker, Helene. The Golem and the Jinni. Harper: HarperCollins. May 2013. 496p. ISBN 9780062110831. $27.99; eISBN 9780062110855. lrg. prnt. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
Lots of in-house enthusiasm for this debut novel after a fierce auction, and it certainly seems justified; Wecker had blended Jewish and Arab mythologies to create a magical novel set in 1899 New York. A golem named Chava, brought to life by a renegade rabbi, loses the husband who had commissioned her on the voyage from Poland, while the jinni Ahmad is released from captivity in a tarnished copper flask (where he’d been put centuries before by a Bedouin wizard) by a tinsmith. As Chava and Ahmad unite against a terrible threat, denizens of their lower Manhattan neighborhood swirl about them intriguingly. With a reading group guide and a 75,000-copy first printing; I’m betting on this one.



Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.