First Novelists Clegg, Foroutan, Islam, Jaffe, Samuel, & Others | Debut Fiction, July 2015

Bow, Frankie. The Musubi Murder. Five Star: Cengage. Jul. 2015. 270p. ISBN 9781432830748. $25.95. M

musubimurder7715Molly Barda is a faculty member at Mahina State University, teaching at the College of Commerce in Hawaii. All she wants to do is lay low and work until she is granted tenure. Fast-food guru Jimmy Tanaka makes a donation to the college but fails to show up for the ceremony. Nobody can find him. Old secrets, long-standing grudges, and murder are on the menu. This humorous debut makes entertaining use of the local patois. Anyone who has ever labored on a college campus will recognize the place and its resident academic egos. VERDICT Certain to appeal to readers who love well-drawn settings or academic cozies such as Sarah Shaber’s “Simon Shaw” series or Clea Simon’s “Dulcie Schwartz” books.—Viccy Kemp, Flower Mound P.L., TX

redstarByron, Ellen. Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery. Crooked Lane. Aug. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781629532509. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781629532516. M

Having returned to Louisiana after a humiliating breakup and the derailment of her Manhattan career, Maggie Crozat now helps her parents run their plantation bed-and-breakfast. When two guests drop dead within minutes of each other, her new-found peace is shattered, along with the reputation of her family’s inn. The police chief of Pelican, Rufus Durand, is an old enemy, and he does his best to implicate Maggie’s family, but his cousin Paul “Bo” Durand is the new detective in town, and he’s more intent on finding the real killer. Then another body turns up. Who is killing the guests at the Crozat B&B and why? ­VERDICT Recipes and fascinating tidbits about plantation history add a tasty lagniappe to this entertaining and well-done cozy debut. A twisty plot and engaging colorful characters complete this mystery’s many pleasures.—Viccy Kemp, Flower Mound P.L., TX

redstarClegg, Bill. Did You Ever Have a Family. Scout: Gallery. Sept. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9781476798172. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476798196. F

didyoueverhaveafamily7715In small-town Connecticut, on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s house literarily explodes, killing ex-husband Adam, lover Luke, daughter Lolly, and ­Lolly’s fiancé, Will. What follows is a propulsive but tightly crafted narrative that moves back and forth in time and from character to character as Clegg builds out his opening scene to take in those sometimes surprisingly affected. The breakup of June’s marriage, the troubled relationship between June and her daughter, the tensions between June and Luke, the small-town tragedy of Luke’s mother, the complicated backstory of the lesbian lovers who run the West Coast hotel where June fetches up—all these and more reveal the fine-grained sorrows of the human condition, rendered in polished, quietly captivating prose. As the stories emerge, so do their connections—and the idea of connection itself. “Did you ever have a family,” says June flatly at a moment of crisis before the blast, capturing the weight family carries in our lives, and the consequence of every relation, every action, resonates throughout the text. VERDICT Readers may come to this debut novel because of agent/memoirist Clegg’s reputation, but they’ll stay for the stellar language and storytelling. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/9/15.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Cross, H.S. Wilberforce. Farrar. Sept. 2015. 464p. ISBN 9780374290108. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374713423. F

Set at St. Stephen’s Academy in 1926 England, this ambitious and accomplished debut is part historical, part bildungsroman, part psychological study, and part English boarding-school novel. With her protagonist, Morgan Wilberforce, a young man who recently lost his beloved mother and feels wholly out of place at St. Stephen’s, Cross effectively captures the debilitating confusion and angst that can attend the difficult passage to adulthood. As a first-year student, Wilberforce must submit to a variety of hazing rituals and sexual torments, which compound his confusion and sense of alienation. High jinks and pranks are committed at the school, of course, but there are also more serious and dangerous unsanctioned activities as well. Cross is most interested in Wilberforce’s psychological and emotional development, however, and skillfully renders the fluid sense of identity and spirit of experimentation that characterizes young adulthood; readers feel viscerally the protagonist’s panic and confusion as he attempts to engage an adult world he doesn’t understand fully. VERDICT This convincingly handled work is recommended for all fans of coming-of-age novels.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT

Dorsey, C. Michele. No Virgin Island: A Sabrina Salter Mystery. Crooked Lane. Aug. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9781629531908. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781629532035. M

Sabrina Salter left her job as a meteorologist in Boston after she accidentally killed her husband. Her partner, Henry Whitman, also had to flee his job as a flight attendant. Now they run a service renting and cleaning villas on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Life in the islands is supposed to be carefree and languid, but when Sabrina finds a dead guest in Villa Mascarpone, her life is once again turned upside down. The police and the paparazzi focus on Sabrina, but Neil Perry, a retired lawyer who now runs Bar None, is convinced otherwise. VERDICT The cast of characters is appealing, with Sabrina and Henry trying to rebuild their lives and a pleasant complement of secondary folks. The plot is intricate with quite a few red herrings. A languorous debut, filled with island charm. Who wouldn’t want to visit St. John?—Viccy Kemp, Flower Mound P.L., TX

Foroutan, Parnaz. The Girl from the Garden. Ecco: HarperCollins. Aug. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780062388384. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062388407. F

In this debut novel, Mahboubeh Malacouti, an elderly woman living in Los Angeles, recalls the stories surrounding her family in early 1900s Iran. Through her memories, Mahboubeh brings to life her Uncle Asher, the wealthiest Jewish man in the town of Kermanshah, and his young, barren wife, Rakhel. As Mahboubeh describes ­Asher’s obsession with having an heir, she begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding her mother’s death and confronts the unsavory darkness beneath her uncle’s exterior. Inspired by her own family history, Foroutan’s fluid narrative successfully paints an immersive tale of the inner strength of women living in a time and within a culture when their personal thoughts and opinions were unwelcomed by men and meant to be kept to themselves. ­VERDICT Though Foroutan is better at writing about the past than the present (the portrait of modern-day ­Mahboubeh is sketchy and leaves much to be desired—perhaps another novel?), she clearly has a gift for storytelling. Readers who enjoyed Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and similar tales of young women overcoming personal obstacles will certainly appreciate. [See Prepub Alert, 2/9/15.]—Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA

redstarGarrison, Nathan. Veiled Empire. Harper Voyager. Jul. 2015. 560p. ISBN 9780062418241. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062418258. FANTASY

The Empire is locked inside a magical veil that prevents anyone from leaving or entering, a barrier that has not been pierced in over 2,000 years. Yet, somehow, an immortal from the defeated caste has not only broken in but is leading an uprising set to topple the entire government and end the rule of the Mierothi. Multiple narrative points of view, from Harridan, a magically enhanced solider, to Voren, the emperor’s pet captive, tell the complex story, lending depth and nuance to traditional epic fantasy tropes. VERDICT The involvement of semi-immortal beings makes for an easy comparison to N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and it’s justified. Written on an grand scale and set in an ancient world of humans, immortals, and other magical beings, this debut is an engaging and quick-moving story of love, revenge, and justice. Resembling the work of Joe Abercrombie and Michael Sullivan, it will be popular with a wide range of fantasy fans.—Jessica E. Moyer, Univ. of Illinois Main Lib.

redstarIslam, Tanwi Nandini. Bright Lines. Penguin. Aug. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780143123132. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101600603. F

brightlights7715A writer whose work has appeared in Feminist Wire and Open City magazine, as well as a multimedia artist and founder of Hi Wildflower Botanica, Islam makes a wonderful debut with this novel about a Bangladeshi American family living in Brooklyn. Ella was orphaned as a child by her parents’ murder following the Bangladesh Liberation War and doesn’t feel at home when she comes to live with her Uncle Anwar, Aunt Hashi, and cousin Charu. To complicate matters, Charu’s friend, Maya, is sleeping in Charu’s bed when she arrives, and as their friendship grows, Ella is forced to confront her sexual identity. Meanwhile, Anwar harbors his own secret, one that threatens his 30-year marriage. When tragedy strikes and the Saleems are blamed, they travel to Bangladesh to reckon with the past. VERDICT The beauty of this novel is that it perfectly merges fascinating narrative, honest characters, and the rich history and culture of Bangladesh with the juxtaposition of Bangladesh’s past and future and of that country with America, adding to the reading pleasure. For lovers of both literary and historical fiction; the anthology Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World is excellent complementary reading.—Ashanti White, Yelm, WA

Jaffe, Sara. Dryland. Tin House. Sept. 2015. 224p. ISBN 9781941040133. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040140. F

This slim, spare novel is told entirely in first person by Julie Winter, a 15-year-old from Portland, OR, who deeply misses her estranged older brother. Over time, we discover that Julie’s brother had been a star swimmer in high school, failed to qualify for the Olympics, and may now be living in Berlin. Julie’s parents don’t speak of their son, but there is an overwhelming feeling of sadness in the family that profoundly affects Julie’s development. Her sole friend, Erika, is steadfast, although obsessed with skater boys and at a loss about what to do about Julie’s secretiveness. At the urging of a classmate to whom she is attracted, Julie joins the swim team. It’s a chance to try to understand her brother, explore her sexuality, and develop her own identity. VERDICT Quiet and understated with a touch of melancholy, like a damp Northwest winter, this debut coming-of-age novel presents one person’s truth in a way that may resonate with readers seeking a deeper understanding of sexual identity.—Christine Perkins, Whatcom Cty. Lib. Syst., Bellingham, WA

Mason, Rhonda. Empress Game. Titan. Jul. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781783295241. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781783295265. SF

This debut novel, the first volume in a trilogy, uses the backdrop of a winner-take-all female gladiatorial contest for the hand of a prince and a seat on the Galactic Ruling Council to tell a story that’s full of political intrigue, corrupt government officials, lost princesses, and unethical scientific experimentation. The forces who think they are good start by cheating—they get a fighting machine body double for their preferred candidate, not realizing that she is the lost princess of a conquered planet. Kayla Reunimon (aka Shadow Panthe) doesn’t share their agenda, but the secret that she would kill for or die to keep throws the group’s plans into chaos. Her aim is to fight, win, and escape, and she doesn’t understand that the best thing she can do to save her people is to continue this charade for the rest of her life. VERDICT This surprisingly complex political and personal narrative is slow to take off, but once it does, the plots, counterplot, and cheating will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Kayla’s complicated loyalties make her an intriguing heroine, and her layered story keeps the reader guessing until the very end. Recommended for space opera and sf romance fans.—Marlene Harris, Reading Reality, LLC, Duluth, GA

Moulin, Jules. Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes. Dutton. Aug. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780525955214. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698405691. F

TV writer Moulin’s (Party of Five; The West Wing) charming debut novel is an all-around win. Ally Hughes is a single, working mother teaching at Brown with no time, and no set agenda, to acquire a man in her life. She is too focused on the day, the deadlines, and the demands of others to think about her needs and wants. For a brief weekend though, her normal world is put on pause as she lets Jake, who’s just finished taking her class, take over her mind and body with his charm and good looks. As reality sets in for Ally, she believes things just won’t, or can’t, work out, so she and Jake go their separate ways, much to Jake’s disapproval and disappointment. Flash-forward ten years and Ally’s daughter Lizzie brings home a guy she likes—a movie star named Noah, formerly known as Jake from that memorable weekend. ­VERDICT Moulin excellently balances different time lines as well as the story lines of other characters with ease and fluidity. The author has perfected the contemporary romance genre. [See Prepub Alert, 2/9/15.]— Anne M. Miskewitch, Chicago P.L.

Nabhan, David. The Pilots of Borealis. Talos. Jul. 2015. 208p. ISBN 9781940456232. pap. $14.99. SF

Humanity has spread beyond Earth after the devastating petroleum wars, with the exploration powered by the new superfuel Helium 3. Mined primarily on the moon, the energy source has made the lunar colony of Borealis wealthy beyond imagination, and the light gravity has given rise to the popular extreme sport of human-powered flight. Wearing wings that would be familiar to the Greek Daedalus, ultrafit humans battle their way around racetracks on the moon and the massive ring orbiting Earth. But pilots are more than just sports stars, which is why human legend Clinton ­Rittener is given the rare honor of both Lunar citizenship and designation as a pilot of Borealis. VERDICT Told from the point of view of world-weary hero and killer Rittener, this short debut novel is a throwback to classic space opera and should be suggested to fans of older authors such as Ben Bova.—Jessica E. Moyer, Univ. of Illinois Main Lib.

Null, Matthew Neill. Honey from the Lion. Lookout. Sept. 2015. 264p. ISBN 9781940596082. pap. $18.95. F

Thirty years after first discovering the timber-rich land of the West Virginia mountains during the Civil War, three Union veterans establish Cheat River Paper & Pulp and proceed to fund their political careers by felling the virgin forests of spruce and pine. Cur Greathouse, driven from home by scandal, finds a form of solace in his employment on the logging crews, even in the midst of dangerous working conditions and unfair labor practices. Murmurs of unions, strikes, sabotage, and even more violent rebellions grow louder as Cur becomes more involved with local characters such as Rev. Luke Seldomridge, a minister losing both his faith and his grip on reality, and Lis Grayab, a Syrian peddler. Divided loyalties and unexpected tragedies disrupt the seditious plans and drive Cur to confront his past. Award-winning short story author Null writes with an eye for the geography, players, and violent push of the Gilded Age profit engines. Whether or not the reader finds the deflating nature of the resolution satisfying, it is in perfect step with the age of the robber barons and the relentless crush of industrialism. VERDICT A debut of note for fans of historical fiction, labor, or environmental issues, and Appalachian settings; read-alike authors include Denis ­Johnson and E.L. Doctorow.—Jennifer B. Stidham, ­Houston ­Community Coll. Northeast

Ostlund, Lori. After the Parade. Scribner. Sept. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781476790107. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781476790121. F

In Ostlund’s debut novel, following her multiaward-winning collection The Bigness of the World, it’s clear that Aaron has always been lonely. When we first meet him, he has just finished packing a U-Haul for a move to San Francisco, leaving long-term partner Walter with little more than a list of personal items to announce his departure. Clearly, he’s not good at goodbyes. The parade of the title, which changed Aaron’s life at age five, was an ordinary event with fire trucks and Shriners on bicycles until his abusive father fell off a float and died instantly. Not long after the funeral Aaron relocates with his mother to a small Minnesota community, where she takes over the local diner. For a while they live quiet if isolated lives, though Aaron isn’t popular and remains an outsider. Then, as a teenager, he meets Walter on a fishing trip and after graduating from high school leaves town with him to attend college. VERDICT A thread of melancholy runs through this affecting novel, which alternates chapter by chapter between past and present. At its heart, it’s about Aaron discovering his independence and learning who he is when there is no one else to define him. Recommended for all fiction readers. [See Prepub Alert, 3/9/15.]—Pamela Mann, St. Mary’s Coll. Lib., MD

redstarSamuel, Sigal. The Mystics of Mile End. Morrow. Oct. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780062412171. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062412188. F

mysticsofmileend7715Shortly after David Meyer rejects Orthodox Judaism, his wife, Miriam, dies in an automobile accident, leaving David and his young children, Lev and Samara, searching for meaning in life. Some of their Montreal neighbors encourage a return to religious belief, while other friends who are more grounded in science and academia steer them toward rationality. As Samuel exquisitely portrays this family’s struggles over the course of years to find reasons for living, she entwines their searches with the kabbalistic mysticism about the Trees of Knowledge and Life that have endlessly obsessed all three of the family members, particularly Samara. VERDICT Every character in this outstanding first novel is searching for a reason to exist—not just the Meyer family, but also their neighbors and close friends. The need for human relationships and mysticism’s relationship to life impel them forward into very questionable actions that might have disastrous consequences. This heart-stopping narrative will keep readers glued until the very end.—Andrea Kempf, formerly with Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS

Syken, Bill. Hangman’s Game: A Nick Gallow Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781250067159. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466875111. M

Nick Gallow remade himself as a punter after his career as a college quarterback was derailed. Known as Hangman because of his great punt hang-time and a wordplay on his last name, he now plays for the Philadelphia Sentinels. Nick’s agent, Cecil Wilson, invites him out for dinner with the Sentinels’ newest recruit, Samuel Sault, who’s worth $64 million. But when Sault is gunned down after dinner in front of the stadium, the team is in an uproar. Jai ­Carson, the Sentinels’ starting defensive linebacker, is the number one suspect. ­VERDICT Former Sports Illustrated reporter Syken knows the cutthroat business that is professional football and brings it vividly to life in this engaging debut mystery. Nick is a great character, with insecurities and foibles that ring true for players at this elite level. A lot of humor leavens the suspense. Fans of Tim Green or Harlan Coben’s “Myron Bolitar” series will definitely want to catch this one.—Viccy Kemp, Flower Mound P.L., TX

Voloj, Julian (text) & Claudia Ahlering (illus.). Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker. NBM. 2015. 128p. ISBN 9781561639489. pap. $12.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

Benjy Melendez was just trying to fit in as an American teen when he joined a gang in their dilapidated war zone of the 1960s Bronx. And when he founded the new Ghetto Brothers gang, he wasn’t thinking about leadership skills and peacemaking. But the intergang peace treaty that he brokered in 1971 laid groundwork for calmer street life, greater freedom of travel across neighborhoods, and a climate of parties and music that led to the birth of hip-hop. This account of Melendez’s youth and maturity touches on interethnic urban friction—­Melendez is Puerto Rican with Jewish heritage, his wife was Chinese, and the gang members included African Americans. Voloj, a German-born photographer living in New York, did numerous interviews and extensive research. German painter Ahlering’s murky black-and-white paintings convey the desperation underneath the city’s bravado and grimy disarray. ­VERDICT Excellent for both teens and adults interested in urban issues, this account shows how difficult it can be to bring about social change and how unexpected positive outcomes can result.—Martha Cornog, Philadelphia

redstarWilde, Fran. Updraft. Tor. Sept. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9780765377838. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466858206. FANTASY

On the eve of the wing test that will finally allow her to take her place alongside her mother as a trader between the towers, Kirit Densira breaks tower law and attracts a skymouth. In a panic, she finds an unexpected skill: her voice can control the invisible predators that roam the skies around the towers. This talent brings her to the attention of the Singers, those in charge of enforcing tower laws and protecting the people. Forced to train with the Singers, Kirit soon uncovers secrets about her own family and about the Singers that could endanger the towers at risk. VERDICT The world of the towers grown from bone, where residents strap on wings and soar the air currents, is captivating. As a coming-of-age story, Kirit’s journey to find her place is satisfying, but the real draw is a world that readers will be anxious to revisit in future volumes of this exciting new series.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.