First Author, First Book | ALA 2013

Janice Clark,The Rathbones
Janice Clark’s debut novel, The Rathbones (Doubleday. Aug. 2013. ISBN 9780385536936. $26.95), gives us one larger-than-life New England whaling family in a story so grandly conceived that it recalls both the Odyssey and Moby-Dick and will make you taste the sea. When the novel opens, the family is a shadow of its former self. The father of the main narrator, 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, has been at sea for nearly ten years, and a shocking incident involving her mother and a stranger sends Mercy running from home with cousin Mordecai. It’s through their travels that we learn about family patriarch Moses, preternaturally talented at spotting sperm whales, who builds a whaling empire of sons through an inexhaustible supply of ultimately exhausted wives—until, that is, the advent of the golden Stark sisters, when a fateful decision reverses the family fortunes. The result is at once tragic and magical, mythic and magisterial, and it’s an absorbing good read.

Matthew Guinn, The Resurrectionist
Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist (Norton. Jul. 2013. ISBN 9780393239317. $25.95) makes it vividly clear that the past is still with us, the legacy of slavery still to be reckoned with, and ethical choices not to be sidestepped. Its main character is medical resident Jacob Thacker is serving out his probation for Xanax abuse by handling public relations for the vainglorious dean of his South Carolina medical school when some campus digging uncovers the bones of dissected African American slaves. Evidently, they had been snatched by “resurrectionists” paid by the school to find fresh corpses for anatomy training. Jacob is caught between conscience and career concerns when it’s clear that he must make this potential public relations catastrophe go away. Meanwhile, we learn the wrenching story of Nemo Johnston, a slave compelled to act as resurrectionist who became an anatomy instructor at the school after the Civil War. So, important history and a moving call to conscience, rendered in pointedly beautiful language.

Amy Gail Hansen, The Butterfly Sister
Amy Gail Hansen’s The Butterfly Sister (Morrow. Aug. 2013. ISBN 9780062234629. pap. $14.95.) offers an intimate and fluidly told tale of one young woman’s seeming to find love, nearly losing her mind, and slowly uncovering a complex history of betrayal. Ruby Rousseau is a jewel of a student at Tarble College who daringly enters into an affair with her English professor, Mark Suter. The souring of that affair and inexplicable events surrounding her senior thesis have led her to leave college before graduating, so damaged that her therapist insists that she must “cease reading books by or about women who kill themselves.” Think Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One’s Own turns up in the suitcase of Ruby’s former classmate, Beth, which has been inadvertently delivered to Ruby. It turns out that Beth is missing, and finding out what has happened to Beth leads Ruby to find out, in a satisfying and well-constructed conclusion, what happened to herself.

Elliot Holt, You Are One of Them
Elliott Holt You Are One of Them (Penguin Pr: Penguin Group USA. 2013. ISBN 9781594205286. $25.95) effectively portrays the pain of childhood betrayal against a vividly painted backdrop of America and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and in its aftermath. The book opens in 1980s Washington, DC, where shy, stumbling Sarah Zuckerman lives with her overanxious mother, her father having decamped to his native England. Her best friend is, surprisingly, golden girl Jenny. When Sarah determines to write Soviet premier Yuri Andropov pleading for world peace, Jenny is inspired to write, too—and she’s the one invited to visit the Soviet Union, becoming an international sensation. Then she and her parents die in a plane crash, and only a decade later does Sarah receive a letter from Russia hinting that Jenny’s fate is not what everyone believes. What happened to Jenny is the mystery that slowly unfolds in this forthright, tenderly rendered novel.

Jason Mott, The Returned
In The Returned (MIRA: Harlequin. Aug. 2013. ISBN 9780778315339. $24.95), Jason Mott offers a startling and realistic evocation of what would happen if people began returning from the dead. Yes, the dead are returning, including Jacob, the son of Harold and Lucille Hargrave, who drowned 50 years ago on his eighth birthday and arrives on the Hargraves’ doorstep exactly as he was, escorted by an agent from the International Bureau of the Returned. Some people consider these resurrections miraculous, others a sign that the end is near, and Harold isn’t convinced that Jacob really is Jacob. Even as tensions boil over when the Returned with nowhere to go are settled in the Hargraves’ little Southern town, we understand what Lucille means when she says that she’s been given a chance “to remember what love is.” It’s no surprise that Jason Mott is an accomplished poet, for his language, which could have been portentous, is instead fresh, fluent, and always engaging.

Jessica Soffer, Tomorrow There Will be Apricots
Jessica Soffer’s first novel, Tomorrow There Will be Apricots (Houghton Harcourt. 2013. ISBN 9780547759265. $24), evokes the beauty of her Iraqi Jewish heritage, the complications of coming of age, and the sheer wonder of good cooking in equal measure. Named for the immortal Spanish poet, teenaged Lorca wants to make her difficult mother happy. So she decides that she will learn to cook masgouf, a simple, quintessentially Iraqi dish her mother once proclaimed to be the best thing she had ever eaten—a real surprise, because her mother is a highly particular professional chef. With the help of a young man she is falling for, Lorca finds just-widowed Victoria, who is teaching an Iraqi Jewish cooking class. What results, though, is not simply a cozy French-film-style bonding over food but something more urgent. Lorca has addressed the emptiness within by becoming a self-mutilator, and her pain and ultimate rescue give this brave novel a palpable edge.

Kent Wascom, The Blood of Heaven
Kent Wascom’s The Blood of Heaven (Grove Atlantic. 2013. ISBN 9780802121189. $25) won the 2012 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and rightly so, for this is one of the boldest, most baroquely and brutally beautiful stories of the Old South you will ever read. Except that this is the Old South before it was the Old South, in the very early 1800s when the Gulf Coast area was still West Florida, moving from Spanish to French to American possession and truly the “Southern frontier,” wild as the wild, wild West that came later. Our anti-hero is Angel Woolsack, son of a real hell-and-brimstone itinerant preacher, so the heightened biblical language is appropriate. Angel’s flight from his father leads him into his own itinerant life of criminal violence and sheer survival with two adopted brothers, as he finds true love with prostitute Red Kate and travels from Natchez to the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where a plot to break away from America brews. Angel’s father damaged his son’s tongue by putting live coals in his mouth for punishment, but you’ll find that here the author speaks true.


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.