Sophomore Triumphs | The Reader’s Shelf, October 15, 2016

Second novels can be tricky. Will the buzz surrounding a first splash be repeated, or will that sophomore effort turn out to be a one-hit wonder? Here are six titles that shine as much as the debuts that preceded them.

queenofthenighttwo-jpg101716Amor Towles debut, Rules of Civility, gentlemaninmoscowtwo-jpg101716was set in New York City during the 1930s. In A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking. Sept. 2016. ISBN 9780670026197. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399564048), he once again transports readers to a great city in a bygone age—in this case, postrevolutionary Moscow following the Bolshevik revolution. With sly wit and sparkling grace, Towles unfolds the tale of Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest. The house in question is the glamorous Metropol Hotel, located at the center of politics and the arts. As things begin to change around him, Rostov adapts and prevails, living a full life within the walls of his unusual home and finding a way to fight back. This engrossing novel is marked by a masterly creation of scenes, lavish descriptions, and brilliant characterizations.

Jessie Burton’s deft and sorrowful second work, The Muse (Ecco: HarperCollins. Jul. 2016. ISBN 9780062409928. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062409942), comes two years after her international success with The ­Miniaturist. At this next turn at the wheel, Burton mines the violence of Spain in 1936. It is there that the Schloss family, originally from Vienna, has moved. They become caught in their wildly spinning world, and their simmering household proves to be the undoing of almost everyone. Running parallel to this story is another set in London decades later, which features Odelle, a transplant from Trinidad who hopes to become a writer. Using a rich palette of smart dialog and fine observation, Burton slowly braids both eras together, connecting her characters to a mysterious ­painting.

To the Bright Edge of the World (Little, Brown. Aug. 2016. ISBN 9780316242851. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316242844) is Eowyn Ivey’s eagerly awaited follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Snow Child. Here, she returns to the untamed land of Alaska, this time in 1885 as Col. Allen Forrester leads a small band of explorers into frontiers of icy rivers and deep forests. He leaves behind his wife, Sophie, who develops a talent for photography. The two use diaries to record what happens while they are separated, and those dual entries form the heart of the novel. Entwining myth, mystery, and metamorphosis, Ivey relates both a riveting adventure tale and a story of a woman forging her way to a creative life—all limned by beautifully strong writing and a vivid sense of place.

It has been quite a long wait for Joe ­McGinniss Jr.’s next book; his debut, The Delivery Man, was published in 2008. He now offers up a dark and edgy tale of marriage and money in the wake of financial crisis. Carousel Court (S. & S. Aug. 2016. ISBN 9781476791272. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476791302) chronicles the wretched relationship between Nick and Phoebe ­Maguire, both caught in their own misery and spiral of poor choices. They respond so heatedly and hatefully to each other that at one point even their toddler is tired of the pair. But readers, appreciative of tense observant character studies, will not grow weary of this taut novel of foreboding that is eventually leavened with a glimmer of light.

S.D. Sykes began her “Somers­hill Manor” mysteries with Plague Land and follows that adroit debut with the equally gripping The Butcher Bird (Pegasus. Apr. 2016. ISBN 9781605989815. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681771199). Set in the wake of the Black Death, the novel returns to its hero, Oswald de Lacy, the beleaguered young lord of a Kentish estate that is slowly recovering from the terrors of the plague. Still contending with the family history and strife that come with his title, Oswald finds himself facing trauma in his village: infant babies are discovered dead, stuck in a thorny hedge as if for safe keeping. The superstitious and easily inflamed community blames a man mad from grief, but Oswald finds an even bleaker horror at the heart of the crimes and must rise to the occasion once more.

Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (Houghton Harcourt. Feb. 2016. ISBN 9780618663026. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780544106604) comes over a decade after his debut, Edinburgh. This new work is a world apart from his first and immerses readers in high society Paris during the Second Empire. Lilliet Berne, a celebrated opera star, stands out in this extravagant era, but she is far from what she seems. Her epic begins at a ball, when what looks like fate walks up and takes a bow. ­Lilliet is offered a choice role in a new opera composed with her in mind—as, indeed, it should be as somehow the libretto is full of her private secrets. Chee weaves a mesmerizing story, written with great verve and ­detail.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at