New Authors Alvar, Clifford, Drager, Ohanesian, Walker, & Many Others | Debut Fiction, April 15, 2015

redstarAlvar, Mia. In the Country. Knopf. Jun. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9780385352819. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385352840. F

inthecountry41715Few writers, even the most seasoned, can produce collections of evenly superb stories. Alvar triumphs on her first try. Her nine stories reflect her own peripatetic background (Manila born, Bahrain/New York raised, Harvard/Columbia educated), featuring a cast of immigrants, expats, travelers, runaways, and returnees caught in constant motion—geographically, socioeconomically, politically, emotionally—as they search for respite and long for an elusive “home.” A pharmacist returns to Manila with pain-relieving drugs for his once abusive, now-dying father and watches his mother continue to serve his every need. The appearance—and disappearance—of a glamorous young maid causes resonating distrust among Bahrain’s Filipino expat community. An office cleaner rushes to the World Trade Center on 9/11, seeking her lover. A young writer is born, if only to keep her overseas brother alive forever. A middle-aged politician exiled to ­“Manilachusetts” trains for the Boston marathon. The titular final piece imbues the phrase “in the country” with tragic meaning as a nurse and a journalist struggle to survive the violent tumult of 1970s Philippines. VERDICT Both intrepid readers and armchair tourists eager to explore debut narratives that straddle multiple countries and cultures—à la Violet Kupersmith’s The Frangipani Hotel or Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am an Executioner—will be opulently rewarded here.—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC

redstarAsim, Jabari. Only the Strong: An American Novel. Bolden: Agate. May 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781932841947. pap. $15. F

This debut novel by Emerson College professor Asim (The N Word) vitalizes a fictionalized 1970 St. Louis offering three separate but connected stories filled with fully realized characters and settings. In one, “bone-crusher” Guts ­Tolliver petitions his boss, gangster-businessman Ananias Goode, for less crushing and comes to run a taxi company; in another, Goode begins a torrid affair with prominent doctor Artinces Noel; and in yet another, Noel’s “ward” falls under the spell of college and a charismatic but damaged young man. Characters weave in and out, held together by ongoing sidelights such as slugger Rip Crenshaw’s stolen World Series ring, taken by the brother of one of three girls who roll the first baseman, who’s convinced that the ring gave him magical powers. The last few pages bring things together nicely, including Crenshaw and his ring. VERDICT Asim’s first novel is being compared to work by writers such as Richard Russo and Stuart Dybek because of the strong sense of community. A better comparison would be the successfully rendered Washington of George ­Pelecanos, except that the characters here are black and most (but not all) of the violence occurs offstage. But, readers drawn to any of these writers will appreciate this excellent piece of urban realism.—Robert E. Brown, Oswego, NY

redstarClifford, Stephanie. Everybody Rise. St. Martin’s. Aug. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781250077172. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466889125. F

everybodyrise41715Twentysomething Evelyn Beegan has just enough social-climbing bona fides (prep school, good college, a somewhat prominent attorney father, a somewhat pedigreed mother) to reach the fringes of 2006 Manhattan high society. When she lands a job with People Like Us, a start-up social media site for superrich young New Yorkers, she is charged with quickly increasing membership. She uses her school friends, her minimal connections, her quick mind, her dogged research skills, and her facility for lying to gain entry into the charity events, regattas, debuts, and stunningly excessive shopping and dining experiences that define the lives of her targets. The deeper she gets, the more she needs, and eventually she pays a price more terrible than the massive debts she runs up trying to buy her way in. ­Clifford, an award-winning reporter at the New York Times, has penned either a how-to (how-don’t?) manual or a cautionary tale for those seeking access to this rarefied world. VERDICT A compulsive, up-close-and-personal read about the first cracks in the greed-and-bleed U.S. economy that went flying off the rails so spectacularly a short time later. [See Prepub Alert, 2/23/15.]—Beth ­Andersen, formerly with Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI

Dinerstein, Rebecca. The Sunlit Night. Bloomsbury USA. Jun. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781632861122. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781632861139. F

Escaping a family crisis and a humiliating breakup, Frances accepts an art fellowship in the northern reaches of Norway, working as an apprentice to an uncommunicative painter. Meanwhile, high school student ­Yasha returns from America to Russia with his father, who hopes to reunite with the wife who stayed behind ten years earlier. The two story lines converge midway through the novel, as Yasha and his family turn up in the remote coastal town where Frances is staying. The disorienting “midnight sun” of summer near the Arctic Circle creates a mystical setting as the characters work out their personal and family dilemmas. New Yorkers Frances and Yasha (both immensely likable characters) experience profound culture shock in the sparsely populated town and yearn to connect with each other. The “will they/won’t they” tension keeps the pages moving, and readers will delight in the often surprising turns of phrase offered by debut novelist ­Dinerstein (also a published poet): a first view of mountains is described as “horrifying,” and a character’s body is said to be “tonguing the wind that blew around it.” VERDICT The unusual setting and evocative language will appeal to those looking for a summer read with a bit more depth.—Christine DeZelar-­Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis

redstarDrager, Lindsey. The Sorrow Proper. Dzanc. Apr. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9781938103001. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941531242. F

sorrowproper41715As a group of public librarians work to keep their library from closing, a couple mourns the accidental death of their daughter who was struck down in front of the library, and an unnamed photographer and his deaf mathematician lover each explore their grief over the other’s death. Through their stories, debut novelist Drager exposes readers to Many Worlds, a theory within quantum mechanics which says that multiple realities or histories are capable of unfolding. The librarians wrestle with changes to their environment brought on by the end of print, attempting to implement any number of new services to hold off the inevitable. By way of their struggles, Drager investigates the nature and purpose of the library and more broadly the impact of change on a societal and individual basis. Her prose is elegant and simple yet still capable of prodding readers to contemplate the larger questions of our existence, and she excels at investing her characters, even the nameless ones, with intimacy. VERDICT A remarkable and mature debut worthy of inclusion in all fiction collections; expect to see it nominated for several fiction awards.—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis

Dugan, Polly. The Sweetheart Deal. Little, Brown. May 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780316320351. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316320337. F

Firefighter Leo McGeary wanted his family to be prepared for possible future disasters. Early in his marriage to Audrey, he convinces his best friend ­Garrett to commit to marrying her in the event of Leo’s death. The pact is almost forgotten until years later when Leo dies in a tragic accident. Knowing that ­Audrey needs help, Garrett puts his freewheeling bachelor lifestyle on hold for a few months to be there for his best friend’s widow and her three sons. He quickly becomes an integral part of the family as they each deal with the loss of Leo. As Audrey and Garrett grow closer emotionally, their fragile relationship is threatened when she learns about Leo and Garrett’s deal. VERDICT By alternating among the perspectives of the various characters, ­Dugan’s first novel (after her story collection So Much a Part of You) intimately explores how grief can affect a family. The author provides a quick, unsurprising read that delves into family relationships in the wake of loss and new love, topics reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s novels. [See Prepub Alert, 11/17/14.]—Joy Gunn, Paseo Verde Lib., Henderson, NV

Grey, Iona. Letters to the Lost. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. May 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781250066770. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466874688. F

Escaping her abusive boyfriend, Jessica Moran takes refuge as a squatter in a long-abandoned London house where the next morning a letter addressed to a Mrs. S. Thorne is dropped through the slot. Upon opening the letter, she learns that the writer is an American ex-serviceman who is making a last valiant attempt to find his lost English love, whom he has not seen in 70 years. Inspired by this passionate and urgent letter and her own curiosity, Jess vows to find Stella and bring these lost souls together if at all possible. VERDICT Grey’s engaging, poignant, and romantic debut treats readers to an absorbing story within a story. Her detailed narrative chronicles the lives of these intriguing characters while fluidly traveling from past to present. The author’s subtle depictions of social and moral intolerances of the past and the gentle hand of fate that guides this tale makes her novel an excellent choice for fans of Beatrice Williams (Overseas; A Hundred Summers), Jon Clinch (The Thief of Auschwitz), and Kristina ­McMorris (Bridge of Scarlet Leaves).—Debbie Haupt, St. Charles City–Cty. Lib. Dist., MO

Griffin, Neal. Benefit of the Doubt. Forge. May 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780765338501. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466839021. F

benefitofthedoubt41715Harlan Lee, paroled after serving 17 years for murder, is bent on revenge against anyone involved in his arrest, including former Newberg, WI, police chief Lars Norgaard, who, after suffering a stroke, is an invalid. Ben Sawyer, Norgaard’s son-in-law, fired from the Oakland, CA, police department for excessive use of force, returns to Newberg, where Norgaard hires him as a detective. When participants in Lee’s jailing start getting arrested themselves and random killings occur, the current Newberg police chief is on high alert. But his concern may be self-serving. When Sawyer’s wife (Norgaard’s daughter) is taken into custody for homicide, Sawyer gets involved to prove her innocence. VERDICT This debut novel by a 25-year police veteran is a well-written and action-packed crime thriller, featuring well-drawn characters who range from despicable to honest. With only one ally in the department, Sawyer must conquer his self-doubts and overcome the antagonism and corruption of other officers to solve the case, in the process transforming himself from disgraced cop to hero cop. This also sets up the next installment of what promises to be a popular series.—­Edward Goldberg, Syosset P.L., NY

Manney, P.J. (R)evolution. 47North: Amazon. Jun. 2015. 590p. ISBN 9781477828496.
pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781477878491. SF

Biotech entrepreneur Peter ­Bernhardt is successful and respected in the competitive field of nanotechnology until terrorists use his nanobots to kill thousands of people. Becoming a pariah overnight, Peter is determined to rebuild. He turns to his longtime friend Carter who initiates him into a secretive cabal of the richest and most powerful men in America. The Phoenix Club will help Peter rebuild, but their assistance comes at a price. VERDICT This ­debut ­technothriller is overlong but constructs some suspenseful moments, including the tense opening scene of the terrorist attack. The Phoenix Club old-boy network goes over the top (one initiation ritual involves killing a bald eagle), and the lengths that Peter goes to for revenge against the club once he turns against them are extreme. The technology described is fascinating, if sketchily explained, but again gets more unbelievable as the book rises to its big finish.—Megan M. McArdle

redstarOhanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance. Algonquin. Apr. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781616203740. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616204914. F

The death of 93-year-old Kemal Türkolu, founder of a Turkish kilim dynasty, throws his family into upheaval when his will (contradicting Turkish inheritance laws) assigns the rug business to his grandson Orhan, bypassing Kemal’s embittered son, Mustafa. Worse, the family home in ­Anatolia is left to an elderly Armenian woman living in a Los Angeles retirement community. Who is this Seda Melkonian, whose legacy threatens to evict Mustafa and the irrepressible Auntie Fatma? Orhan travels to L.A. to get Seda to sign her rights back to the family and to uncover the connection to his grandfather. “Nobody does sorrow like the Armenians,” Seda’s niece Ani tells Orhan, and the story that Seda gradually reveals is one of heartbreaking loss and unending grief. In 1915 she and her family were swept up in the mass deportations and killings of over a million Christian Armenians by a crumbling Ottoman empire. VERDICT Traveling back and forth in time from 1915 to 1990, ­Ohanesian’s beautifully written debut brings to life a historic tragedy that Turkey still denies ever happened. At times the brutality depicted makes for painful, shocking reading, but this is also a story of love and hope as one young man awakens to painful truths about his country’s past. What is most astonishing is how sympathetically drawn Ohanesian’s Turkish characters are. Moving and unforgettable. [Read the author’s essay here; see also “Editors’ Spring Picks,” LJ 2/15/15.]—Wilda Williams, Library Journal

redstarPapernick, Jonathan. The Book of Stone. Fig Tree. May 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781941493045. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941493052. F

Papernick’s provocative debut novel (after two story collections) explores the motives of religious extremism and how it can attract those in search of identity. When Judge Walter Stone dies in his Brooklyn apartment, his listless son ­Matthew is forced to confront his checkered legacy—Walter left the bench in disgrace after “jurymandering” a trial in favor of an Israeli man who bashed a Palestinian-born shopkeeper to death; his grandfather Julius was a reputed gangster in the time of Meyer Lansky; and his mother left when Matthew was a child. Feeling adrift, Matthew loses himself inside his father’s stacks of books, searching for a connection the two never shared when Walter was alive. His loyalties are soon tested when his father’s business partner asks Matthew to release funds earmarked for a museum in his father’s name—a museum that the FBI believes will be a front for a terrorist operation in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Drawn into a community of believers with a singular focus, Matthew claims his Jewish heritage for the first time, falling in love in the process. He makes a choice that will set him on the true path and finally gain his late father’s acceptance. ­VERDICT This intelligent and timely thriller is told through a Jewish prism, but ­Papernick’s persuasive insights into the nature of fanaticism and its destructive consequences could be applied to any ideology. Highly recommended.— Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ

redstarPierpont, Julia. Among the Ten Thousand Things. Random. Jul. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780812995220. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812995237. F

amongtenthousandthings41715Recent MFA grad Pierpont’s first novel is an expertly crafted story of a family in crisis. She opens with a letter to Deb, a married mother of two, from the “other woman.” In a cruel twist, Deb’s 11-year-old daughter, Kay, finds the epistle first, along with copies of all the dirty and romantic emails her father, Jack, sent his mistress. This disturbing episode throws the reader into the middle of the family drama that may not be distinct but perhaps has never been this well articulated. The author plays with the narrative, giving us a snapshot of the characters’ lives to come over the following decades before zeroing in on the immediate aftermath. After a few disastrous weeks coping at home in Manhattan, Deb takes the kids to a family beach house in Rhode Island, while Jack, an installation artist at a crossroads in his career, flies to Texas. We hear alternating perspectives from Jack, Deb, Kay, and 15-year-old ­Simon, all of whom are richly drawn and heartbreakingly sympathetic. VERDICT ­Pierpont wields words like beautiful weapons. This short novel is a treat for fans of Jonathan Franzen, Jami Attenberg, and Emma Straub, and shows off an exciting new voice on the literary landscape. [See Prepub Alert, 1/12/15.]—Kate Gray, Worcester P.L., MA

Shupe, Joanna. The Courtesan Duchess. Zebra: Kensington. (Wicked Deceptions, Bk. 1). Apr. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781420135527. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781420135534. HISTORICAL ROMANCE

Forced into an arranged marriage when she was only 16 and promptly deserted by the groom, Julia Seaton, Duchess of Colton, hasn’t seen her libertine husband, Nicholas, in eight years. Now, shunned by his family and nearly destitute, Julia devises a daring scheme to become pregnant and secure her future by transforming herself into an irresistible courtesan (with the help of Pearl Kelly, one of London’s best) and seducing her unwitting spouse. To Julia, it’s the perfect plan! Then their emotions explode, the duke learns the truth, and everything begins to unravel. Explicit sex singes the pages, and real danger lurks in the shadows as Julia and Nick battle distrust and resentment as they try to forge a future in a lively story liberally enhanced by Miss Kelly’s sage advice. VERDICT A naïve, desperate heroine and a thoughtless, rakehell hero mature delightfully as they come into their own in this steamy debut that is the first of a back-to-back trilogy and skillfully sets the stage for the stories to come (The Harlot Countess in May and The Lady Hellion in June). Shupe lives in South Orange, NJ.—Kristin Ramsdell, librarian emerita, California State University, East Bay

Swyler, Erika. The Book of Speculation. St. Martin’s. Jun. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781250054807. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466857797. F

When a mysterious book detailing the history of a traveling circus arrives on the doorstep of newly unemployed librarian Simon Watson, he discovers his family’s lineage includes tarot readers, professional mermaids, and misfortune. Simon soon grows obsessed with the show and its characters, like the young Wild Boy who eventually grows into a seer’s apprentice, and his mermaid love, Evangeline. But tragedy lurks behind the costumes and tricks. Generations of women in the Watson family have committed suicide by drowning on July 24, and Simon fears that his card-reading sister, Enola, will be next. VERDICT Debut author Swyler creates a melancholy world with hints of magic at the edges. When the narrative shifts from the emotionally myopic Simon to the circus, the story really starts to gleam. Each member of the troupe shimmers with mystery, and one gets the sense that they are most free, most themselves, when onstage. Fans of historical novels, especially titles with circus themes or touched with a hint of the supernatural such as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Katharine Dunn’s Geek Love, or Katharine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, won’t want to leave this festival. [See Prepub Alert, 12/15/14; also “Editor’s Spring Picks,” LJ 2/15/15.]—Liza Oldham, Beverly, MA

starred review starTanzer, Molly. Vermilion. Word Horde. Apr. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781939905086. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781939905109. FANTASY
When several young Chinese men who left San Francisco to seek work on the railroad disappear without any word to their families, psychopomp Lou Meriweather is asked to investigate. Half Chinese and half English, Lou never fit into the white or the Chinese communities of the city, deciding instead to make her own way as a professional psycho-pomp, speaking to the dead and helping them move on to the afterlife. She travels to the Colorado Territories to seek the missing workers as a favor to her estranged mother, but the trail leads to a mysterious sanitarium, which harbors dark secrets. ­VERDICT Old West steampunk has another appealing heroine in Lou (pair her with the equally winsome female lead of ­Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory) to go along with the delightfully over-the-top villains. The pages turn themselves in this debut novel from a small press that deserves a big audience.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

redstarWalker, Sarai. Dietland. Houghton Harcourt. May 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780544373433. $26. F

dietland41715Plum Kettle likes living under the radar—pretty hard to do when you’re 300 pounds or so. She lives alone, doesn’t socialize, and telecommutes, answering readers’ emails for the pretty, slim editor of a teen magazine. Plum dreams about her scheduled weight-loss surgery, the day she’ll begin her real life; she’s too distracted to pay much attention to the blooming acts of international terrorism against men who treat women like property and objects. But someone’s onto her—someone who pushes back against Plum’s efforts to be invisible, who anonymously leaves Plum a book that challenges all she’s ever thought to be true about women and weight loss. Little does she know how close finding her voice will bring her to the enigmatic and stunning acts of revenge. This novel is like a roller coaster. Before you know it, you’re racing through an edgy and exciting mix of mystery, crime, and social critique of gender and beauty standards at breakneck speed. Vivid characters and sometimes surprising acts of violence make the story pop. VERDICT Ideal for readers seeking something more socially aware and gender-conscious in their women’s fiction; book groups will find lots to discuss.—Amy Brozio-Andrews, Albany P.L., NY

Williams, Eli K.P. Cash Crash Jubilee. Talos. (Jubilee Cycle, Bk. 1). May 2015.
400p. ISBN 9781940456270. $25.99. SF

In a future Tokyo, everything about our lives has been monetized and the rights sold to huge corporations, requiring people to license every function deemed voluntary such as walking and talking and even breathing deeply. If you outspend your earnings you might cash crash, and liquidators such as Amon Kenzaki will come for you, sending you to bankdeath. Amon gets a string of high-profile crash cases, but his unquestioned loyalty is tested when it becomes clear that someone is tampering with his targets’ bodybanks. VERDICT Darkly cynical, this debut overdoses on slick descriptions, trying to overwhelm the reader with the minutia of every visual of this Blade Runner–esque world. The author also tends to use an “infodump” methodology to describe the workings of his grim universe.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

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